Bells that ring under the sea. ARCHAEOLOGY NEWSFLASH 768
During storms, so it is said, the bells of lost churches have been heard
pealing as the sea currents surge through
the bell towers.
Lost churches under the sea? Bells under the sea?
Have you read about that great city Dunwich? In the days of the British
King Alfred Dunwich in East Anglia was a bustling town and in Henry II’s
reign had a royal palace. Among sailors and merchants its market was
known all over Europe.
Dunwich was so important, it used to return two members of parliament.
Imagine this great city being slowly but surely swallowed up by the
greedy sea. In 1347, more than 400 houses and as many shops and
windmills were engulfed. When Drake was fighting the Spaniards, scarcely
a quarter of the fine old city was left.
At last all that remained of Dunwich were the cracked and battered walls
of the Church of All Saints, which for years hung poised on the very
edge of the cliff – and then one day crashed into the sea beneath.
The low cliffs are still crumbling away by 5 to 6 feet annually.
From information we have, the coastline at Dunwich has been eroding for
hundreds of years. The average loss of land here during the past 400
years is estimated at 1 meter per year. Assuming this loss has been
consistent since the latter part of the Roman occupation, the Roman
site would be at least 1¼ miles from the present shoreline.
DUNWICH A ROYAL CAPITAL
In 630 AD, King Sigebert established his throne at Dunwich, or Donmoc
as it was then known. Dunwich quickly became the centre of learning in
the area. In 636 AD, Dunwich was made a bishopric and a city.
Sigebert’s successor, a man called Anna, is also said to have had his
palace at Dunwich.
HALF AS BIG AS LONDON
By the 11th century Dunwich was one of the greatest ports on Britain’s
east coast. In fact, it was the tenth largest place in England, with
grand public buildings, and even a mint. Dunwich also became a naval base
and it was chosen as a port of departure for the crusades.
As a religious centre also, it boasted many large churches, monasteries
At that time – listen to this – Dunwich had half the population of the
City of London.
ONE OF BRITAIN’S TOP PORTS
The city was favoured with a safe land locked harbour two miles long by
half a mile wide, which had a good deep channel down the middle. There
was anchorage and wharfage for a hundred ships, or more if need be. In fact,
there were few better ports in the whole of Britain.
During the 12th and 13th centuries the tides continued to cause havoc. They
kept pounding and grinding against the eastern side of the town.
Erosion was continuing year by year until a continuous cliff was formed,
more or less in a straight line running north south.
The cliff became higher as it retreated. There was nothing anyone could do
Those who built the town were like the men who built a house upon the sands,
for the wind blew and the waves beat upon it and it fell. The Harbour, the
ships, the streets, the churches, the palaces, the walls of stone and the
gates of brass, all have gone.
Because the site of the former city of Dunwich is now almost totally
submerged in the rather murky waters of the North Sea, under meters of mud
and sand, it does not lend itself to the usual form of archaeological
In 1973, a long search was made during a period of excellent seabed
visibility and the ruins of St.Peter’s Church, lost to the sea in 1688,
Since then, nil visibility on the seabed has hampered any significant
results. But some stonework has been recovered.
In 1979 divers reported nil visibility and thick mud. Although tree trunks
and crag were detected under the mud, nothing further was found.
In 1981 a large obstruction was located on the seabed, sticking through the
Further search confirmed the presence of a ruin. A considerable amount of
hand work, stonework and part of a church window, were found. The exact
extent of the site is unknown due to nil visibility.
However, hand-worked limestone, marble and granite were recovered. Scattered
over the site were flints, some being flush-work. Recovered from the mud were
two 12th century imposts, one in excellent condition and the other badly
eroded. About 60 meters north of what appeared to be the central mass of the
ruin, part of the top of a stone tomb weighing 139 pounds was discovered.
In 1983, divers carried metal excavators and air jets to move mud and sand.
Green leaves, branches and bark were recovered from under the mud and sand.
Identification of different species of trees was made.
Large man-made items were marked, then lifted off the seabed using lifting
bags. More 12th and 13th century stonework connected with doorways and arches
was recovered from the site, much of it in excellent condition.
What about the ringing bells?
I knew you’d ask that question.
Well, church Bells played an important everyday role in early times.
They told the people that it was the time to start work, the time to finish
work, the time for prayer, the curfew hour, and so on. The bells tolled to
announce a death. The bells pealed for a celebration.
In fact, this ancient custom continued in many rural districts until World
War II. Then it was decided that all church bells should be silenced, except
to announce invasion by the enemy.
The legend of the bells at Dunwich is that the tolling of bells from a
submerged church or churches can be heard at a certain turn of the tide.
In 1856, John Day, a Master Mariner, claimed that he knew his position when
making for Sizewell Bank on passage to Bawdsey Haven, by the tolling of a
bell from a submerged church at Dunwich.
As an archaeologist I have come to learn that most legends are based on fact.
It is quite possible that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries or
earlier, bells could have been heard from the sea.
In actual fact, a bell underwater makes a ‘clanging’ rather than a resonant
sound. On the other hand, a bell standing on the seabed would most probably
be partially filled with sand and for that reason unable to ring.
If a bell was submerged at certain states of the tide, it could be heard
ringing from the surface of the water.
It should be understood that the masonry of early church towers was quite
thick and the towers themselves were often circular in construction. This
gave them great strength – enough strength to withstand the force of the
waves for a considerable period.
On a visit to Dunwich in 1573, the historian Stowe reported that he “beheld
the remains of ramparts, downfallen edifices and tottering noble structures”
at the water’s edge.
I have a photograph of an old church tower, Eccles Church Tower, all that
is left of an old ruin, still standing erect, all 60 feet of it, firm,
solid and upright, on the beach.
Now, if such a church tower was standing this same way in the water, its
bells could have been rung by the waves as they lapped at the belfry, with
the rise and fall of each tide. As time went on and the tower tipped over,
this might still occur, but only at very low tides.
If you want to know the answers to these questions, and discover other
amazing facts, here is where to go:
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International explorer, archaeologist and author
Jonathan Gray has traveled the world to gather data
on ancient mysteries. He has penetrated some largely
unexplored areas, including parts of the Amazon
headwaters. The author has also led expeditions to
the bottom of the sea and to remote mountain and
desert regions of the world. He lectures internationally.