Excavation of the earliest ship from Europe’s Age of Discovery

Last updated: May 17, 2018 at 2:42 am

[ 2016 ] Oman’s Ministry of Heritage & Culture (MHC) in cooperation with Blue Water Recoveries Ltd (BWR) of West Sussex, UK announce the discovery and archaeological excavation of a Portuguese East Indiaman that was part of Vasco da Gama’s 1502-1503 Armada to India.  The ship, which sank in a storm in May 1503 off the coast of Al Hallaniyah island in Oman’s Dhofar region, is the earliest ship from Europe’s Age of Discovery ever to be found and scientfically investigated by a team of archaeologists and other experts.

Details of the wreck site, published today in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology reveal that the ship is believed to be the nau Esmeralda commanded by Vicente Sodré, who was the maternal uncle of Vasco da Gama and a descendent of the nobleman Frederick Sudley of Gloucestshire, UK. A website with high-resolution images and video of the excavation was also launched today: (http://esmeraldashipwreck.com)

The wreck site was initially discovered by a BWR team in 1998, on the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s epic discovery of the direct sea route to India, but full-scale archaeological survey and excavation by the MHC didn’t begin until 2013. Since then two more excavations have been conducted in 2014 and 2015, with more than 2,800 artefacts being recovered. The project has been jointly managed by the MHC and David L. Mearns of BWR and has been conducted in strict compliance with the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage of 2001.

Key individual artefacts that helped in identification of the wreck site as Vicente Sodré’s nau Esmeralda include:

  • an important copper-alloy disc marked with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and an esfera armilar (armillary sphere), which was the personal emblem of King Dom Manuel I.
  • a bronze bell with an inscription that suggests the date of the ship was 1498.
  • gold cruzado coins minted in Lisbon between 1495 and 1501.
  • an extraordinarily rare silver coin, called the Indio, that was commissioned by Dom Manuel in 1499 specifically for trade with India.  The extreme rarity of the Indio (there is only one other known example in the world) is such that it has legendary status as the ‘lost’ or ‘ghost’ coin of Dom Manuel.

The bulk of the recovered artefacts were artillery and ordnance from the arsenal on board the ship.  These included lead, iron and stone shot of various calibres, a large number of bronze breech chambers and several ancient firearms.  Together they provide tangible proof of the military objectives of this fleet as ordered by Dom Manuel and brutally carried out by Vasco da Gama and his two uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré.

The historical and archeological importance of the wreck site, based on future studies of the artefact assemblage, could be enormous.  As one of the very early Ships of Discovery that pre-dates the nearest Iberian shipwreck in age by 30 to 50 years, the artefacts are expected to reveal new discoveries about how maritime trade and warfare was conducted in the Indian Ocean at the turn of this vital century.

It was the efforts of several governmental agencies that made this project happen. These include Oman Royal Navy, Oman Royal Airforce, Oman Royal Police and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs along with the help of the local people at Al Halaniyah. On the International level the project has benefited immensely from the contributions of a large group of independent archaeologists, scientists and other experts, who analysed the artefacts in forensic detail using cutting-edge technologies.  The institutions involved include Bournemouth University; the Smithsonian Institution; Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust; Univeridade de Nova Lisboa; WMG, University of Warwick; Oxford Isotrace Laboratory; GUtech, Oman; Banco de Portugal, Lisbon; Lisbon Geographical Society; LNEG, Lisbon; London Geochronology Centre; Durham University and the Mary Rose Trust, UK.  These analyses were partly supported by grants to David L. Mearns from the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council and the Waitt Institute.

His Excellency Hassan Al Lawati the Adviser to the Minister For Heritage Affairs comments “This project is regarded as the first that is conducted in Oman and the region in underwater archaeology. Therefore, the Ministry has taken a proactive approach to ensure that the project will be efficiently conducted. This was done by involving the expertise in underwater archaeology and by working under international regulations such as the UNESCO convention of 2001. This project provided great opportunity in term of capacity building to the National team in all related aspects of underwater heritage site studies. We appreciate the joint efforts of the local and international entities and institutes that made this project a huge success”

This project differs from the majority of maritime archaeology projects in that we set out to specifically find the wreck site of the Sodré ships, using a suvivor’s and other historical accounts, because of their very early age and the potential they held for new discoveries.  It is extremely gratifying therefore that this strategy has paid off with such interesting revelations even though we are still at a relatively early stage in the study of the artefact assemblage,” said Project Director David L. Mearns.

Archaeological Director Dave Parham of Bournemouth University commented “it is fascinating to work on a site that is involved in such early European maritime connections with the Indies. The armaments that the  site has produced are already providing us with information about the martial nature of these voyages and the site has the potential to tell us much more about the men and ships that undertook these adventures and the peoples that they encountered”.

Ibrahim Al Busaidi, Lecturer at the history section in Sultan Qaboos University commented  “The arrival of the Portuguese to India in 1498, led by Vasco da Gama is considered the beginning of a new era of communication between East and West at the beginning of modern times. This historical discovery documents this communication and confirms Oman’s global stature and importance in the midst of the international competition between the various forces in the beginning of modern times. The artifacts that were found among the wreckage of the sunken ship of captain Vicente Sodré (1503) will provide the researchers and scholars, in the field of geographic explorations and the studies related to the Indian Ocean, a lot of historical information related to the nature of the Portuguese campaigns to the east and its goals, and the types of ships and weapons in addition to the economic aspects, such as currencies. Also it lends a lot of historical facts and supports the documentations on the Portuguese presence in the Middle East”.

A Portuguese East Indiaman from the 1502–1503 Fleet of Vasco da Gama off Al Hallaniyah Island, Oman: an interim report, Mearns, D.L., Parham, D., and Frohlich, B, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 45.2, © 2016 The Nautical Archaeology Society.

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