Muscat: Ancient treasures dating back to the era of legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama have been discovered in the shipwrecks of Portuguese naval vessels, off the coast of Oman.
The latest of these is said to be one of the oldest versions of an astrolabe, an instrument once used by sailors to measure the altitude of the Sun during their voyages.
The wrecks, which date back to the year 1503, are located off the coast of the Hallaniyat Islands, which lie in the Dhofar Governorate, near Salalah, and were part of Da Gama’s expeditionary fleet to explore and colonise parts of Arabia and the Far East.
The excavation and exploration of the shipwrecks was financed by Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture, which has contracted marine excavation specialist firm Blue Water Recoveries to lead the operation. Having first begun activity on the site in 1998, David L. Mearns, director of Blue Water Recoveries, and his team, continue working on the shipwrecks.
“There are only approximately 80 known shipwrecks worldwide dating to the period of Iberia’s maritime expansion in the early 16th century and of these only a handful have been excavated by archaeologists,” said Mearns, who co-wrote a paper on his findings, with David Parham, a marine expert at the University of Bournemouth, and Bruno Frohlich, who specialises in finding out the exact age of ancient discoveries at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., United States.
The ships—named the Esmeralda and Sao Pedro—were part of Da Gama’s 20-ship fleet, which set off on the Carreira Da India, or expedition to India, aimed at establishing lucrative trade routes for spices, tea and other exotic goods to Europe. The two ships or naus in Portuguese were commandeered by Vicente and Bras Sodre, Da Gama’s maternal uncles, who were given orders to stay off the coast of Oman to disrupt competitors in the region.
While at sea off the Omani coast, a violent storm struck the Kuriya Muriya island chain. The two commanders were caught off-guard, despite warnings from the locals, and while the Sao Pedro was able to clamber back to shore, most of the Esmeralda’s crew perished in deeper waters.
“The opportunity, therefore, to scientifically study artefacts from one of the earliest Portuguese ships in the Carreira da India is a rare privilege that can result in unique discoveries about how maritime trade and warfare was conducted at the turn of this vital century, and provide tangible proof of historical accounts confined previously to the pages written by chroniclers long after the event took place,” he added.
“The wreck-site of the naus Esmeralda and São Pedro, commanded by Vicente and Brás Sodré, might represent exactly this type of opportunity for nautical archaeology,” explained Mearns. “We provide conclusive evidence, based on historical evidence combined with careful examination and scientific analysis of key artefacts, of the exact location where the ships wrecked and the identity of Vicente Sodré’s Esmeralda as the probable source of the remaining cultural material.
Compasses aside, a veritable treasure trove of objects have been found, including ceramic remnants of everyday objects, such as cooking pots, plates and cups, copper-alloy and iron barrels, that form part of a larger set of handguns, ammunition made from limestone and igneous rocks, the ship’s bell, used to make announcements and send messages, and even Portuguese coins called Cruzados that were specially minted for trade with India.
“The remote nature of the site—on an island 45 kilometres off the sparsely populated southern coast of Oman and within a bay only accessible by boat—explains the evident lack of disturbance we observed,” said Mearns. “When comparing the 1998 and 2013 surveys of stone shot exposed on the surface their positions were essentially unchanged.”