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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 03:54 GMT
Darwin's Beagle ship 'found'
Robert Prescott with anchor. Pic: St Andrews University
The anchor may have been used when Beagle was a coastguard ship
The mystery of what happened to the ship that ferried Charles Darwin around the world may have been solved.

A team led by Dr Robert Prescott of the University of St Andrews has located what they believe are the remains of HMS Beagle beneath an Essex marsh.

To explore the site further, technology designed for the UK's recent ill-fated mission to Mars is being considered.

The two quests are linked by Colin Pillinger, who named his Red-Planet craft Beagle 2 after its 200-year-old predecessor.

Sophisticated radar technology was used to detect signs of wood and metal that may belong to the bottom of HMS Beagle, on which Darwin gathered the natural specimens he used to develop his theory of evolution.

The ship's remains are embedded in five metres of mud at a site near Potton Island.

Darwin himself seems to have had no idea that his former ship ended her life so close to his home in Kent."
Dr Robert Prescott, University of St Andrews
After circumnavigating the globe, the ship was used as a watch vessel to combat smuggling in the Southend Coastguard District.

Researchers must now decide whether it is feasible to recover what remains of the ship. As yet, the team have not secured funding to do so.

But archaeologists may be able to explore the site in other ways.

Famous journey

Professor Pillinger told BBC News Online that the "mole" used on Beagle 2, a device developed to burrow beneath the Martian soil, could be fitted with a camera to explore beneath the mud where HMS Beagle may now lie.

Dr Prescott and Professor Pillinger set up the Beagle Ship Research Group in 2000, with the aim of finding out what became of the 27m-long Navy brig after its famous journey.

HMS Beagle
Darwin's voyage on HMS Beagle helped forge his theory of evolution
Dr Prescott and his colleagues studied historical maps and correspondence between the coastguard officers and local oyster fishermen.

The last location of the vessel was revealed by a manuscript chart produced by the Photographic Office Survey Team in 1847. It shows the ship moored in the middle of the River Roach.

But in 1850, the ship was moved ashore, following complaints from the oyster fishermen that it was blocking the passage of their boats up and down the fairway.

The correspondence between the coastguard controller-general and his officers pointed to a particular spot on the shore where it was deemed HMS Beagle should be berthed.

"We did an archaeological survey and found lots of mid-Victorian pottery that came from the ship," Dr Prescott told BBC News Online.

"We then did a remote [radar] sensing survey of the site which revealed the shape and the size of the dock and showed an anomaly on the bottom which is the one we think is the ship."

Superstructure stripped

The team found an anchor that may have been used by the ship after it became a coastguard vessel.

In 1870, the activities of smugglers were in decline and Beagle was sold for scrap at the price of 525. The identity of the purchasers is not known, but it is thought they stripped the ship of its superstructure, leaving behind those parts that sit below the waterline.

Dr Prescott added that the bilges, near the bottom of the ship, might have collected sludge and discarded objects from her travels.

Pollen and other biological material from these bilges could be analysed to reveal more about the history of the ship's voyages.

"Darwin himself seems to have had no idea that his former ship ended her life so close to his home in Kent," said Dr Prescott.

The BBC's Christine McGourty
"Excavating the site to dig the ship out is the next big challenge"

Darwin's finches at risk
08 Nov 02  |  Science/Nature
Darwin's letters return to their roots
27 Aug 02  |  Science/Nature
Darwin's home restored
22 Mar 98  |  UK News


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