Mark Milburn’s Cornish Wreck Ramblings, Part 10: Ancient Times


Cornwall is well known for its tin mining industry; the iconic engine houses can still be seen around the countryside. It is an ancient industry, starting well over 2,500 years ago. Production of tin, a constituent of bronze, was important worldwide especially during the bronze age. This brought traders. There is a rumour that the Phoenicians came to Cornwall to trade for tin, although there has been no evidence to prove that, yet. On an old hand drawn local chart, in an area near St Michael’s Mount, there is a written comment stating ‘Phoenician’s objects found’. What these ‘objects’ were, or where they are now, is unknown.

Whether the Phoenicians actually made it to Cornwall may never be known. The author David Gibbins writes of a Phoenician wreck off the Cornish Coast in his book Testament. Although Testament is fiction, several of David Gibbins stories from his books have actually come true. Whether or not the Phoenicians came to Cornwall, there would have been other traders coming by sea, from that era.

The Romans may have conquered a large part of the known world, including England. They did not conquer Cornwall, although they did trade with her. There are very few known Roman settlements in Cornwall, it was too remote and the Cornish were probably too efficient at producing tin. The Romans knew that if they tried to take control, tin production might fall. It was far easier to trade.

There are lots of Roman finds around Cornwall; a lot, considering they never really occupied the area. Roman tin traders would have travelled by land as well as by sea. Rumours of Roman wrecks have been passed down locally and amphora are believed to have been recovered in the past. I have been told this from two separate sources with regards to two separate locations. There is a very big chance that there are more to be found.

Apart from amphora, we would expect to see remains of weapons and even quern stones. Quern stones are corn grinding stones, something the Romans were believed to carry on all their vessels. They would be used for grinding corn to make flour, which they could use to make bread, soups or cornmeal. I have found a quern stone, as has another local diver. They are hard to date but are both estimated to be over a thousand years old. They would also have a hearth, terracotta and bronze containers and utensils, maybe even a mortar. Roman warships had large bronze spikes at the bow to pierce any vessels they rammed, but, unfortunately, their merchant vessels did not have these.

The Vikings visited Cornwall, not to live, but to raid and trade. They made several raids including one as far around the coast as Padstow in 981AD. They would have traded for tin as it was still an important commodity. Viking ships were fast but lightweight and constantly needing repair. Riding a storm out on the Cornish coast is hard in any small vessel, so the Viking vessels would stand little chance. Unfortunately, there was little to a Viking ship, other than wood and small iron nails. So, if one was ever found, it would be very hard to work out what it was from the cargo alone. Although finding anything ancient in the waters around Cornwall would be highly unlikely, it would certainly be of national archaeological importance.

Find out more about Mark and Atlantic Scuba at

Mark Milburn

Mark Milburn

Mark Milburn is the owner of Atlantic Scuba in Falmouth, Cornwall, England, and is an SDI/TDI/NAS/RYA Instructor and a Commercial Boat Skipper. Although often referred to as a maritime archaeologist, he prefers to call himself a wreck hunter. Find out more about Mark and Atlantic Scuba by visiting

scroll to top