NAS Cannon Course
When you don't have provenance for a wreck site they can be murder to date and with older sites, where timber construction has decayed away and the tides have swept the smaller items out into an extended debris field leaving only the bulk metal and the ballast, you can be in trouble. However one item that stays where you leave it unless somebody comes and takes it away is a cannon.

Cannons from the 1400s to the early 1800s were a necessary self defence on international merchantmen of this era and the stock in trade of the navies. Admittedly they were considered valuable and attempts would be made to salvage them but where a wreck occurred in relatively deep water and was only attested to by flotsam washing ashore on the local coast the wreck may be undiscovered or, at least only be salvaged by grappling. Some cannon have dates cast or engraved in them, some have records from owners or manufacturers and, at worst they can be dated by style giving and earliest possible date and a probable date range.

With this resource in mind the NAS organised Ruth Rhynas Brown and Robert Douglas Smith, a husband and wife specialist cannon team to present a two day course on measuring, recording and identifying cannons (1400-1820). Since this was held at the Rotunda at Woolwich, housing the reserve collection of the museum of the Royal Artillery, we also had the advantage of, not only of an enormous supply of cannons, but also of Matthew Buck, the curator of the collection.

The amount of material we had to get through was truly gargantuan and the first objective was to understand cannons enough to be able to identify the key features and the significant types both by size, material and design but also by country of origin. We learnt our names from the Cascable to the Muzzle taking in Dolphins and Trunions on the way and then it was out into the yard for a scramble over lines of cannons to see examples of the rules and enough exceptions to keep us guessing.

Now there are very few NAS courses that don't involve measuring something so we were soon outside with a cannon, a note pad, a camera and the inevitable tape measure. We photographed, measured, sketched and carefully transcribed the inscriptions. Then we used our simplistic knowledge to try to interpret it.

One highlight of the first day was Matthew walking us round his extensive collection of oriental ordinance including some beautiful presentation pieces and again some strange items without documentation on how they were used.

The second day moved on from wrought iron and bronze cannon to the cast iron construction which dropped the price of artillery and made it more commonplace. Here we concentrated first on the British standard models, their shapes and markings and then extending this to the European variants. By this time we were getting more adapted to reading the identifying mouldings and engravings even after several hundred years of decay and the types were beginning to stick so we could do the easy ones.

Ruth and Bob were using their extensive knowledge to replan the course as they became aware of our interests and added an extra section on the ancillary equipment that would be found with wrecked cannon or that would be left behind even if the cannons themselves were salvaged. Also they had some details on the construction methods used and a DVD video of a Danish Experimental project to make a small wrought iron cannon using blacksmithing equipment.

We finished with a section on doing documentary research. Ruth had copies of various bills, reports, ledger entries referring to cannon going right back to the original spy's report of the sailing of the 'Amardo' from 'Lisborne' on the 30th of May 1588. These illustrated the problems of reading 16th century handwriting but also the nuggets of data that can be discovered as a cannon in the Rotunda collection, just behind where we were sitting, was detailed in a contemporary survey of in service naval ordinance.

It would be nice to think that I will shortly happen upon an unknown wreck of the right period, poke about, find a cannon and pronounce a definitive identification on surfacing but that is hardly likely. At least I know what to look for, what to measure, where to poke and where to point the camera so we can make a sensible report. The personal smugness of walking past a sea side display and remarking casually "Oh it's a Bloomfield. English. George the third." I will keep to myself.

Written by Nigel Hewitt and published in the News letter of the Nautical Archaeological Society 2005.2

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Pictures by Nigel Hewitt
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