Muscat: A shipwreck of one of earliest ships from the European age of discoveries in the east has been discovered off the coast of the Governorate of Dhofar at the Al Hallaniya Island, the Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MHC) revealed at a press conference on Tuesday.
The Portuguese war ship called ‘Esmeralda,’ which sank in a storm in May 1503 near the Omani coast, is the earliest ship from Europe’s age of overseas explorations to be found and scientifically investigated by a team of archaeologists and other experts. The ship was part of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s armada to India in 1502-1503.
The discovery is important, given the huge number of artefacts, more than 2,800 that have been found at the wreck site. These include firearms, brass belt buckles, spoons, trade beads, rings, ceramics and stone cannon balls.
One of the most significant artefacts found at the wreck site, is the ship’s bronze bell with an inscription that suggests the date of the ship was 1498. The bell was, as David Mearns, project director of Blue Water Discoveries Ltd. (BWD) explained, “amazingly, found under a boulder, having stayed there for over 500 years.”
Mearns said the golden ‘Cruzado’ coins dating from between 1495 and 1501 found at the site were “in spectacular condition.” In addition, an ultra-rare silver Indio coin that was commissioned by King Dom Manuel I in 1499 specifically for trade with India was found at the site. He said there is only one other example of this coin in the world.
An important copper-alloy disc marked with the Portuguese Royal Coat of Arms and an armillary sphere, which was the personal emblem of King Dom Manuel I, was another important object found. The announcement followed years of research conducted by the MHC and BWD, who have since 1998 carried out extensive research to find scientific proof of the identity of the Portuguese ship being Vicente Sodré’s Esmeralda. Full-scale archaeological survey and excavation however, did not begin until 2013.
Mearns said it took a team of 55 crew members 977 divers and 50 days at the wreck site to get a complete picture of the ship.
“This is, easily, the most complex and hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s most satisfying and a legacy I’m extremely proud of,” he stated.
It is now proven that the ‘Esmeralda’ is the earliest ship from Europe to be found, explained Mearns. Details of the wreck site, published on Tuesday in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology reveal that the ship is believed to be the nau Esmeralda commanded by Vicente Sodré, who was the maternal uncle of Vasco da Gama.
The historical and archaeological importance of the wreck site, based on future studies of the artefact assemblage, could be enormous. As one of the very early Ships of Discovery that pre-dates the nearest Iberian shipwreck in age by 30 to 50 years, the artefacts are expected to reveal new discoveries about how maritime trade and warfare was conducted in the Indian Ocean at the turn of that vital century.
Ibrahim Al Busaidi, assistant professor at the Department of History at Sultan Qaboos University, said the discovery is important in the light of Oman’s strategic location.
“The arrival of the Portuguese in India in 1498, led by Vasco da Gama is considered the beginning of a new era of communication between the East and the West at the beginning of modern times. This historical discovery documents this communication and confirms Oman’s global stature and importance in the midst of the international competition between the various forces in the beginning of modern times,” he said.
He added that the artefacts found at the site will provide researchers with a lot of historical information related to the nature of the Portuguese campaigns in the east, and the types of ships and weapons, in addition to the economic aspects, such as currencies. He also said it would lend a lot of historical facts and support the documentation of the Portuguese presence in the Middle East. The discovery of the Esmeralda will benefit research and tourism in Oman, as the objects are expected to attract a lot of attention from visitors.
Hassan Mohammed Ali Al Lawati, adviser to the Minister for Heritage Affairs at MHC, said that this discovery is not only important to Oman, but also to cultural heritage shared by all nations.
“For many decades, there was a lot of debate about these ships and where they sank, but with this physical discovery, we have verified that the ship had sunk in the waters of Oman,” he said.
He said that a part of the objects will be displayed at the National Museum in Muscat, while most of the other objects will be displayed in the Maritime Museum that is coming up in Sur.
Mearns said other ship wrecks discovered in the past have attracted huge crowds to museums, such as the Swedish war ship Vasa (from 1628), which, according to him, had attracted more than 1.2 million visitors a year.
“They don’t come close to the historical importance of this one. We now have a collection of artefacts in which I think will make a terrific exhibit here in this country. This is something people will really want to see,” he noted.