BU maritime archaeology team on Oman ‘Vasco da Gama’ shipwreck

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A Portuguese ship wrecked on a remote island off the coast of Oman in 1503 has been archaeologically excavated by a team of Bournemouth University (BU) and MHC maritime archaeologists.

The ship is believed to be a part of Vasco da Gama’s 1502-1503 Armada to India and has been worked on by Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MHC) and Blue Water Recoveries (BWR) Ltd, alongside archaeology experts from BU.

The wreck site was first discovered by BWR in 1998, with archaeological surveys and excavations beginning in 2013, led by the BU team. The ship is believed to be the nau Esmerelda commanded by Vicente Sodré, who was the maternal uncle of famed explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea.

The shipwreck held a number of artefacts of archaeological significance, including a copper-alloy disc marked with the Portuguese coat of arms, a bronze bell with an inscription that suggests the date of the ship was 1498 and a number of gold cruzado coins minted in Lisbon between 1495 and 1501.

The route taken by the ship is an early example of the establishing trade routes between Europe and India, along with wider routes to Asia. Dave Parham, archaeological director  on the project and Associate Professor at BU explains, “It’s the oldest European shipwreck in that part of the world, it is a very early European maritime contact with the Indian Ocean and the East. Those trading networks turned into some of the most significant modern trading networks, this ship was a trailblazer really. The ship has a lot of ordinance to confirm it as an armed trading vessel, alongside the remains of both provisions they took with them from Portugal and things that they are trading or capturing in the area, which gives us an archaeological connection of the trading connections going on in that part of the world at this period in history.”

The ship, which sank in a storm in May 1503 off of a remote island in the Sultanate of Oman, is the earliest ship from Europe’s Age of Discovery ever to be found and scientifically excavated.

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The excavation is also of significance as the first to have taken place in Oman, and something that the Omani government were keen to be involved with. Parham explained, “The team in Oman wanted to own the project and look at their own Omani heritage, to really make this a flagship project for them too. The site was discovered in 1998 and there was desire by the team in Oman to demonstrate the historical significance of the site, and that it was a ship that historical texts had confirmed. A small team from BU went out in 2013 to confirm that the identity was valid, which it was.

“It is a very remote part of the world, and the environmental conditions were stunning, excellent visibility underwater and some amazing marine life, we even saw humpback whales this year. The site itself is actually incredibly well preserved; the material that we found includes cargo and historically significant items. It was an incredible experience as none of us had worked in such a geographically remote location before, and the material was something that, in some senses we had seen before on other European shipwrecks and, in other ways, totally different to what we are used to.”

The Bournemouth University team that worked on excavating the shipwreck in Oman have experience of working with historically significant shipwrecks, such as their excavation of the Swash Channel Wreck in 2010. Parham concluded, “This is now an established team that the University now has, who are able to take the expertise from BU across to the Middle East and beyond, to use what we know about maritime archaeology to affect what is going on across the world, and contribute to the history of this area.”

Details of the wreck site have been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. More information about the shipwreck, including a video of the excavation, can be found at http://esmeraldashipwreck.com

University of Bournmouth

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