The era before air travel, when adventurers sailed the seven seas in search of trade, power, and adventure, has a romantic and exciting quality that’s still portrayed in books and movies, and beloved by so many today.
A common theme in all of those tales is the treasure chest, a wooden strongbox overflowing with gold coins and precious gems. Of course, in reality, most of the valuables carried on the high seas were items for direct trade that wouldn’t be of much value to us today, at least not financially. But whenever we find a shipwreck from that time, it is almost certainly of value to us archeologically…
Portugal is pretty small, being roughly the size of the state of Maine. But a few hundred years ago, it was one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world, with territory including a massive chunk of South America, significant holdings in Sub-Saharan Africa, and colonies established throughout Asia and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The Portuguese Empire was established and maintained by the country’s powerful navy, which brought great wealth through trade with distant nations. Though we know much about that period in history, there is always more that can be learned.
Looking Into The Past
For the nearly ten years, the town of Cascais, along with the Portuguese government, navy, and Nova University in Lisbon, have been carrying out an archeological project to look deeper into the time when Portugal was a dominant seafaring force.
Cascais lies just to the west of the Lisbon, the capital city. It’s a coastal town that lies at the mouth of the Tagus estuary. The southern part of the Iberian peninsula, the body of land that contains Portugal and Spain, is famous for its warm, beautiful weather.
As such, it’s no surprise that Cascais is now a major resort destination. But in the age of wooden ships, it was an important port for both trade and military purposes. Consequently, it would be one of the best places to look for artifacts of Portugal’s imperial past.
The Place to Look
Luis Mendes, Portugal’s Minister of Culture said the Tagus river was considered a “hotspot” for shipwrecks from the era of wooden ships. When archeologists made an astounding find in September of 2018, “[that] discovery came to prove it,” he said.
Off of the coast, archeologists found the 400-year-old shipwreck of what appeared to be a trade ship. “From a heritage perspective, this is the discovery of the decade,” Jorge Friere, the project’s director, said to Reuters.
“We found the ship on 4 September, using a geophysical survey and divers, and spent four days working on the site,” said Frierie, who is specifically a maritime archeologist. The wreck was remarkably well preserved, making it “the most important find of all time,” for the country, he said.
“We don’t know the name of the ship, but it’s a Portuguese ship from the late 16th or early 17th century,” Freire said. More specifically, the ship sank sometime between 1573 and 1620, as archeologists learned from a certain artifact they found.
Some of the items in the ship’s hold were porcelain artifacts from China, belonging to the Wanli Period. The Wanli emperor, whose personal name was Zhu Yijun, was the 14th emperor of the Ming Dynasty in China. His 48 year reign – the longest among all Ming dynasty emperors – began in 1572, meaning the Portuguese ship must have ended its journey of several years close to that time.
That particular period was the height of the spice trade for Portugal, so it came as no surprise when archeologists discovered spices from India, including black pepper, a commodity so valuable in Europe at the time that it was often used as collateral or even currency.
One of the darker items found in the wreck were a number of cowrie shells. The cowrie is a type of sea snail, whose shells were used as a currency in the slave trade in some parts of Africa at the time.
Ready For Action
There were also a number of bronze cannons found, a testament to the dangers of sea trade in the era. A ship carrying valuables traveling from one side of the world to the other would make a tempting target for any number of pirates and nations if it didn’t have the means to defend itself.
The cannons were engraved with Portugal’s coat of arms and armillary sphere that are still found on the Portuguese flag, confirming beyond any doubt that it was a Portuguese ship. That cemented it as an important cultural relic for the coastal nation.
“This is one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the century,” said Cascais Mayor Carlos Carreiras. “The recognition from the scientific community that this is the discovery of the decade, the century, in terms of marine archeology, is for us of great satisfaction.”
Long Project Ahead
Some of the objects from the wreck that were most at risk of being lost were removed immediately for safekeeping. The rest of the artifacts would remain there for divers to explore over the coming weeks, months, and possibly years.
Searching For Clues
Divers and researchers would “have to complement the work in the field with research in our historical archives, to find out exactly which ship” it was that they found. The work would be part of a planned ten year project to map the area that began in 2009.
According to the survey team that has been working on the project, this particular wreck was in better structural shape than the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, a wrecked cargo ship that was also found at the mouth of the Tagus river.
The Nossa Senhora dos Mártires was also a trading ship, though it was from an earlier time, having sunk in 1606. It was apparently trying to seek safer anchorage in the Tagus during a wind storm but struck a submerged rock and went down close to the shore.
Lost in that wreck was a massive amount of black pepper, which completely covered the river, and were harvested along with the other cargo by people living in the town at the time. The wreck was discovered in 1993 and subsequently excavated between 1996 and 2001.