The oldest shipwreck from Europe's Golden Age of Exploration has been found off the coast of Oman, the country's Ministry of Heritage and Culture has announced.
The wreck is believed to be that of the Esmeralda, which was part of a fleet led by legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama during his second voyage to India (1502-1503).
The wreck was initially located in 1998 and excavated between 2013 and 2015 by a partnership between the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture and the shipwreck recovery company Bluewater Recoveries Ltd., which is directed by David Mearns. Support for the project was provided by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council.
While the ship's guns were most likely salvaged shortly after the vessel sank, archaeologists found dozens of cannonballs at the wreck site [Image: David Mearns, National Geographic Creative]
Analysis of the thousands of objects recovered from the wreck is ongoing, but researchers have concluded in an interim report that the vessel belonged to da Gama's fleet — and is in all probability the Esmeralda.
Their conclusion is based on extraordinary artifacts that include a Portuguese coin minted for trade with India (one of only two coins of this type known to exist) and stone cannonballs engraved with what appear to be the initials of Vincente Sodré, da Gama's maternal uncle and the commander of the Esmeralda.
If this is indeed a wreck from da Gama's 1502-1503 fleet, it will be the earliest ship from the Age of Exploration ever to be found and excavated.
The 21st-Century Search
Mearns' team spent six months researching Portuguese archives to zero in on potential locations for the Esmeralda and the São Pedro before locating the wreck site in 1998, the 500th anniversary of da Gama's discovery of the Carreira da India. "Our team stood on top of the island and watched the waves come in, and put themselves in the place of the Portuguese, where they would have anchored and where the storm would dash them along the coastline," Mearns recalls. "Then they snorkelled around and in 20 minutes started seeing cannonballs that were obviously from a European ship."
Blue Water Recoveries returned to Al Hallaniyah island with Oman's Ministry of Heritage and Culture between 2013 and 2016 to excavate the site, which is located across a series of gullies in a bay on the northeast side of the island. High-energy wave surges — which led divers to nickname the site the "washing machine" — had forced artifacts deep into the sand.
Mearns credits the remote location of the sparsely populated island, some 45 kilometres from mainland Oman, with preserving the wreck from looters. The excavation was spurred in part by ongoing development of Al Hallaniyah.
One of 12 Portuguese gold cruzado coins found at the wreck site [Image: David Mearns, National Geographic Creative]
The Age of Exploration
The Age of Exploration refers to a period between the mid-15th and 17th centuries when European countries sought out global maritime trade routes. Much of this activity was initially fueled by attempts to reach the spice markets of the Indian subcontinent, which at the time were controlled by the Muslim rulers of Egypt via the Red Sea.
Christopher Columbus' unsuccessful search for a western maritime route to India resulted in the "discovery" of the Americas in 1492, but it was Vasco da Gama who ultimately established the Carreira da India, or India Route, when he sailed around Africa and into the Indian Ocean, landing at Calicut (modern Kozhikode), India in 1498.
In 1502 the king of Portugal, Dom Manuel I (r. 1495-1521) reappointed da Gama as Captain-Major of the fourth Portuguese expedition to India, with a fleet of 20 ships armed with heavy guns to subdue hostile Muslim merchants. Da Gama returned from India to Lisbon in 1503, leaving behind a five-ship squadron led by his uncle Vincente Sodré to protect Portuguese factories along the southwest coast of India. Instead, Vincente Sodré in the Esmeralda, his brother Brás in the São Pedro, and the rest of the squadron sailed to the Gulf of Aden between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, where the Sodré brothers seized and looted Arab ships.
A ship's bell, one of the 2,800 individual artifacts found at the site, is believed to be the oldest example ever recovered [Image: David Mearns, National Geographic Creative]
In May of that year, the squadron was anchored at Al Hallaniyah, one of the Khuriya Muriya Islands off what is now southern Oman, when local residents warned the Portuguese that a dangerous storm was approaching. The Sodré brothers ignored the warning, and according to an eyewitness account their ships were torn from their moorings and dashed against the rocks. The São Pedro was driven ashore and most of its crew survived, while the Esmeralda and its crew perished in deeper waters.
Scholars estimate that out of more than a thousand ships that plied the Carreira da India — at the time the world's longest sea route — between 1498 and 1650, roughly 20 percent of the vessels were lost at sea. However, very few India Route shipwrecks have been found and excavated, and until the discovery in Oman the earliest-known wreck that could be conclusively identified was that of theSão João, which foundered off the South African coast in 1552.