Travel across Oman, and you will find a land that contains several centuries’ worth of history. From the early days of the Bronze Age, the relics of which date back to the 3rd millennium BC, to the Land of Frankincense, which span from the 4th century BC to the 16th century AD, are but two of the Sultanate’s famed memories that show us what life was like for our ancestors.
While the forts that dot the Sultanate’s landscape, from Musandam’s mountain castles in the north, to Dhofari strongholds in the south tell several stories of the country’s past, there are many tales involving Oman that are found beyond its shores as well. Beneath Oman’s seas lies a discovery that few people could’ve imagined, and fewer still have seen.
In this case, the Arabian Sea provides a treasure trove of discoveries with which historians can continue to build the history of Arabia and its connection to the outside world. In 2013, a wreck belonging to a 16th century Portuguese ship was discovered near the Hallaniyat Islands off the coast of Oman, and subsequently recovered and explored by team lead by David Mearns, the founder of Blue Water Recoveries, a company that specialises in the recovery of sunken shipwrecks.
Within this wreck off the coast of Oman were two items that would enter the history books: Mearns and his team found a ship’s bell and an astrolabe – a device used by sailors to plot the directions of their voyages – which were later confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the oldest of their kind currently in existence.
T Weekly reached out to David Mearns and his team about the challenges they faced while excavating and the Portuguese shipwrecks off the Oman coast, and the procedures they followed to ensure they left them intact.
The ship in question was the Esmeralda, and was part of the fleet left behind to ensure Portugal maintained their trade dominance between India and Europe. Called a naus in Portuguese, the Esmeralda was one of two ships left behind by the great Portuguese explorer and navigator in 1503, during his second voyage to India.
“The ships, Esmeralda and São Pedro, had been commanded by da Gama’s maternal uncles, Vicente and Brás Sodré, respectively,” said Mearns. “A detailed study and scientific analysis of an artefact assemblage recovered during archaeological excavations conducted in Al Hallaniyah in 2013 and 2014 confirms the location of an early 16th-century Portuguese wreck-site, initially discovered in 1998. Esmeralda is proposed as the probable source of the remaining, un-salved wreckage. The two ships, the naus Esmeralda and São Pedro, were the leading vessels of a five-ship squadron of three naus and two caravels that formed an important part of Vasco da Gama›s second voyage and the fourth Portuguese fleet to explore the Indian Ocean.
“The ships were commanded by the brothers Vicente and Brás Sodré, respectively, who were the maternal uncles of da Gama,” he added.
“This research concluded that the most probable location for the wrecks was the northern coast of Al Hallaniyah, the largest of the Kuriya Muriya Islands situated approximately 45km off the southern coast of Oman, and it was the basis for a search expedition which initially located the wreck site in 1998.”
The wreck and its cargo were discovered by divers in the shallow waters of the Ghubbat Ar Rahib Bay, which lay off the north-eastern coast of the island.
The two ships were part of the Carreira da India, an annual, highly lucrative but extremely dangerous voyage undertaken by Portuguese ships to transport soldiers, businessmen and colonists from Europe to India, past the Cape of Good Hope, after stopping in Mozambique and Mombasa, before halting at Cochin and finally Goa, where they would take on a number of precious goods, including several spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace.
They also took on cargoes of ginger, tamarind and a number of herbs that were used to make balms and dyes, including Socotra Aloe, galbanum, camphor, myrrh, lac, indigo and dyewood. Other priceless items taken back and sold in Portuguese and other European markets for a tidy profit included ebony, ivory and pearls. However, studies show that between 1498 and 1650, the heyday of Portuguese dominance in the region, 219 ships were sunk.
Mearns shed some light on the history behind this shipwreck as well, explaining to T Weekly the differing instructions that Vasco da Gama’s relatives had received from him, and the separate orders they’d been allegedly given by none other than the King of Portugal.
“The story’s enduring interest stems in part from the direct familial connection with da Gama, but equally from the important military role played by Vicente Sodré during this voyage in accordance with separate instructions given to him by the Portuguese King Dom Manuel I,” revealed Mearns. “In April of 1503, Sodré took his squadron to the Kuriya Muriya Islands off the south-eastern coast of Oman to shelter from the south-west monsoon and to repair the hull of one of the caravels. They remained on the largest and only inhabited island (now known as Al Hallaniyat) for many weeks and enjoyed friendly relations with the indigenous Arab population, including bartering for food and provisions.
“In May the local fishermen warned the Portuguese of an impending dangerous wind from the north that would place their anchored ships at risk unless they moved to the leeward side of the island,” he explained. “Confident that their iron anchors were strong enough to hold their naus in place, the Sodré brothers, kept their ships in the northern anchorage, while the smaller caravels moved to a safe location on the other side of the island.
“When the winds came, as the Arab fisherman had accurately predicted, they were sudden and furious and were accompanied by a powerful swell that tore the Sodré brothers’ ships from their moorings and drove them hard against the rocky shoreline smashing their wooden hulls and breaking their masts,” Mearns went on to reveal. “While most men on the São Pedro survived by scrambling across the fallen mast and rigging on to land, it was reported that everyone from the Esmeralda, including the squadron commander Vicente Sodré, perished in the deeper waters of the bay. Although Brás initially survived the wrecking of his ship, he later died of unknown causes.”
It was while exploring this wreck off the Hallaniyat Islands that Mearns and his team came across many relics that showed them many aspects of the Portuguese empire. A number of silver coins, including special indio coins that were made for trading with India, were discovered, as were several other forms of Portuguese currencies, which had been minted by the country’s successive kings. Several cannon balls, samples of lead shot used in rifles, and breech-chambers that were used to feed ammunition into smaller cannons as well as swivel guns were all unearthed.
Although they might not have seemed as significant at the time, the ship’s bell and a metal disc that was later confirmed to be an astrolabe were later found. David Mearns and his team published their findings in two papers that have since been shared with the public. Both were published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
The first was titled A Portuguese East Indiaman from the 1502–1503 Fleet of Vasco da Gama off Al Hallaniyah Island, Oman: an interim report, and was written in collaboration with David Parham and Bruno Frohlich, while the second, called An Early Portuguese Mariner›s Astrolabe from the Sodré Wreck-site, Al Hallaniyah, Oman was released on 16 March 2019, and was co-written with Jason Warnett and Mark Williams.
“The fragile bell is fractured in two pieces, its crown is missing leaving a rectangular hole on its top and a long vertical crack runs from the waist of the bell to the lip,” revealed Mearns. “Otherwise the bell is complete and in remarkably good condition considering its age and exposure in this high-energy environment. The bell is simply decorated with a series of ten bead lines and has a raised inscription just below the shoulder containing letters and numerals that were barely visible beneath a layer of corrosion crust.
Measuring about 175mm in diameter, and about 1.5mm in thickness with a 10mm hole in the middle, “a thin, copper-alloy disc was found and recovered from beneath approximately 0.40 m of loose sand,” recalled Mearns, explaining how he found the astrolabe. Its origin, however, is clearly and unmistakably Portuguese owing to the raised Portuguese royal coat of arms and the esfera armilar (armillary sphere) that adorn its upper surface.” Mearns added that this made it “an iconic symbol of Portuguese navigation during the Age of Discovery. This important decoration indicates the disc was a high-status object on board the ship.”
That sphere was the personal symbol of King Manuel I, who ruled the Portuguese Empire from 1495 to 1521.
Once the items had been thoroughly cleaned in a manner that didn’t further harm them, a process that took more than two years to allow the objects to rid themselves of all foreign matter, high-resolution imaging known as computed tomography (CT) to discover more about the objects in question. Scanning was performed at the University of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group, with multiple scans that took 3.5 hours each conducting, consisting of 3,142 individual X-ray projections taken from different angles.
Mearns and his team discovered that the bell was cast in 1498, which correlated correctly, given that Sodre’s flotilla left Portugal in 1502. In addition, while wear and tear over the years had eroded some of the metal disc, it was still solid enough to undergo scanning. After initial tests were conducted at Sultan Qaboos University, a team of three engineers travelled from Warwick to scan a large number of these artefacts, including the disc. The team found that 18 gradations – similar to the marks found on a ruler – were present at intervals of five degrees, leading to a total measurement angle of 90 degrees, putting Mearns and his team one step closer to their history-making discovery.
“In view of its other characteristics—namely size, shape, reinforced central hole, suspension ring, and decorations marking it as an important object of high status—this analysis was deemed to be definitive in confirming the identity of the disc as a marine astrolabe,” he said. Based on the known chronology of the Sodré squadron and the astrolabe›s distinctive markings, which strongly suggests it was made after Manuel became king, the likely date range for its manufacture is 1496 to 1501. This makes the Sodré astrolabe the earliest mariner›s astrolabe found to date.
“The Sodré astrolabe is also unique in that, of the 104-known instruments, it is the sole specimen decorated with a national symbol: the royal coat of arms of Portugal,” Mearns shared. “These decorations dominate one side of the Sodré astrolabe. Their conspicuous placement, in relief, ensures that they stand out and would appear to mark the astrolabe as an object of the state. This is significant in light of Manuel’s use of royal symbolism to project his power at the precise time Portuguese ships were discovering new lands and his country was on the cusp of building the world›s first global empire.”
The challenges of the Esmeralda Wreck Site
The biggest challenge faced by David Mearns and his team was the remote location of the Hallaniyat Islands, which made it an uphill task for the explorers to conduct on-site analysis of the wreckage and the artefacts found therein.
“The island is extremely remote, sparsely populated and has virtually no facilities or infrastructure to support the operations described herein,” admitted Mearns. “This situation led to a suspension of the project until a collaborative agreement with Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MHC) was made in 2013 to continue the survey and excavation of the site using self-sufficient vessels that were either hired or supplied by Oman’s Royal Navy. As the official Government body responsible for the protection of Oman’s underwater cultural heritage the MHC authorised and co-managed the project.”
In addition, the site itself posed problems, because of the sometimes unpredictable nature of the sea, despite the best efforts and meteorological studies that had been consulted to choose an appropriate time for exploration and recovery of the wreck. “On even calm days the site experienced considerable wave surge as the sea-bed topography acted to funnel incoming swell towards the gullies where the wreckage was located,” added Mearns. “The fill of the gullies, to a maximum depth of 2m, was largely sand, boulders, rock scree, and broken coral. Due to an increased risk of disturbance or looting the exposed surface artefacts were all recovered at the end of the 2013 expedition.” – [email protected]
What was recovered from the Esmeralda?
• Large stone shot
• Shot made of stone,
iron and composites
• Navigation and ship’s equipment
• Trade goods
• Gold and silver coins
• Organic material such as pepper
• The astrolabe
• A fractured ship’s bell