The wooden masterpiece - a large sculpted moustachioed human head - formed part of the wrecked 17th-century ship's 3.5 ton rudder. Picture:

London - A unique work of art that was raised from the seabed off the Dorset coast on Monday could help solve one of the great mysteries of UK marine archaeology.

The wooden masterpiece - a large sculpted moustachioed human head - formed part of the wrecked 17th-century ship's 3.5 ton rudder.

The identity of the vessel - and the head - are currently unknown, but it is hoped that a close study of the huge rudder could ultimately prove crucial in more accurately working out the vessel's size and port of origin.

Research, carried out on behalf of Bournemouth University's Marine Archaeology Research Group, suggests that the ship, known as the Swash Channel Wreck, was built in Holland in 1628 or 1629 and that it sank sometime between 1630 and 1645.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why it ended up at the bottom of the sea off Dorset. At least five options are being examined by the researchers.

They include the possibility that she was sunk in the English Civil War (the Dutch were involved in arms running to both sides) or that she was attacked by Spanish-backed privateers or even Algerian pirates.

Alternatively, she could have run aground on a sandbank or been wrecked in a storm.

The great wooden rudder, including its moustachioed sculpture, is the final artefact being brought up from the wreck site. Over the past seven years, about 1 200 items have been rescued from the wreck by Bournemouth University marine archaeologists.

The haul has included the ship's timbers, elaborate wooden carvings, ropes and pulley blocks from the rigging, several cannon and gun carriages, cannon balls - and even the large barrels which had once contained the ship's store of salt beef.

Some of the objects will go on exhibition in Poole Museum next year. Most of the material is currently undergoing conservation, funded by English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, at York Archaeological Trust in York.

A potentially insoluble mystery is what the vessel was carrying. No cargo has been found - so it is conceivable that it was officially salvaged in the 17th century - or alternatively that it was illegally looted by people in the Poole area before the authorities could reach it.

The wreck is located near Poole - a mile off the coast in 7m of water. It was first discovered in 1990 when a dredger hit an obstruction.

Detailed archaeological work on the site, known as the Swash Channel, started in 2006. “The wreck is important because so much of it survives”, said Bournemouth University's marine archaeologist, Dave Parham.

“It is the ship itself that is significant - there are only a few wrecks like this in the world, and it tells us more about the beginnings of large scale international trade,” the marine expert added. - The Independent