Highborn Cay Shipwreck, Bahamas (c. 1520)
History of the wreck
The identity of this ship is unknown. It dates from the first half of the 16th century. It was found in 1965 by sports divers in the Exuma Islands of the Bahamas, and salvaged in 1966 by Mendel Peterson and Teddy Tucker1. The INA/EDRT promoted a survey on this site in 1983 and excavations started in 1986. Some historians believe it to be the remains of a pirate ship that was lost in 1500. However, the archaeologists managed to compile a number of interesting facts about what survived. The predominant feature was the overlapping frame ends, which were dovetailed together2.
Description of the site
The site consisted in a 20 x 8m area where a ballast mound covered the remains of a hull of which keel, Keel, keelson, maststep, buttresses, floors, futtocks, planking, ceiling and wales were fairly well preserved. Only the ends were exposed, together with a trench excavated amidships.
Keel, keelson and maststep
The keel was not preserved in its full extension, but a trough worn in the bottom3. It was estimated in 12.6m and its section was 15-16.5cm sided and 21cm molded. The keel was joined to the stempost by a flat vertical scarf with a 30cm table. The curve of the stem was tangent to the keel. The keelson was notched over the floors, 16-21cm sided and 17cm molded. The maststep consisted of an enlarged portion of the keelson along 2.25m, 40cm sided and 25cm molded. It had a mortise 65 x 17 x 15cm with a spacer inserted on the forward side 30cm long and 15cm wide. The maststep was held in place by pairs of 3 buttresses, which lye over the floors and were embedded in notches on the maststep and on the foot wales. The buttresses were 13.5cm sided and 21.9cm molded on the maststep side, and 11.8cm sided and 16cm molded on the foot wale side. These buttresses were not fastened. Two semicircular holes and a small mortise on the mast step indicated the pumps and pump well's locations.
The (only) master frame was located under the maststep, just forward of the mortise. It had futtocks on both sides although only the forward futtocks had dovetail joints. The three center frames were spaced 30cm center to center, less than the average room-and-space, which was 30cm. The floors were in average 16.5cm sided and 17.5cm molded. From an estimated total of 30 or 31 frames, it is not known how many were pre-assembled. The futtocks were joined to the frames with dovetail joints. No fasteners were noted, although recesses at the ends of the floors and futtocks may have been cut to ease the nailing. The mortise was on the floor and the wider side of the trapezoid down. Forward of the master frame the futtocks were joined to the forward face of the floors and aft of this frame they were joined to the aft face of the floors.
The planking was 6cm thick. The strakes’ sided dimension was 8-25cm. Ceiling, thick stuff and wales The ceiling was 3cm thick. The strakes’ sided dimension was 12-31cm. A foot wale ran along the turn of the bilge, over the floor/futtock connection. There were three strakes of ceiling between the keelson and the wale. The first ceiling strake after the wale was notched to receive the fillers. Small planks were placed between the buttresses, resting on rabbets in its upper edges.
One of the four bolts fastening the keel to the keelson passes in the space between two floors.
There is no information on the caulking.
The ballast mound covered an area of 16 x 4m. There is no estimated total weight. There were stones larger than 50cm. Samples were taken for analysis.
Size and scantlings
The Highborn Cay wreck is believed to have had a keel 12.6 m long, a beam 5-5.7m and an overall length of 19m.
|Construction Feature||Sided cm)||Molded (cm)|
|Mortises||15-17 x 65||13.5-15.5|
|Main mast ∅||35 min.||?|
Of a set of fifteen samples taken from several timbers on the wreck all but two showed to be oak (Quercus sp.). The two exceptions were planks from the pump well which were from the Salicaceae family (which includes willows) and the Cupressaceae family (which includes cedars).
1. Smith, Roger & Keith, Donald & Lakey, Denise "The Highborn Cay Wreck: Further exploration of a 16th century Bahaman shipwreck" IJNA (1985) 14.1: 63-72. See also: Peterson, Mendel “Buried treasure beneath the Spanish main” Unesco Courrier, (1972) May: 23-27: 23-24, and “Les sites d’épaves des Amériques” in L’archéologie subaquatique, une discipline naissante, Unesco, Paris, 1973: 83-92: 95.
2. Richard Steffy, INA Shipdata Project, Texas A&M University.
3. Oertling, Thomas J. "The Highborn Cay Wreck: the 1986 field season" IJNA (1989) 18.3: 244-253.
Oertling, Thomas J. "The Highborn Cay Wreck: the 1986 field season" IJNA (1989) 18.3: 244-253.
Peterson, Mendel “Buried treasure beneath the Spanish main” Unesco Courrier, (1972) May: 23-27.
Peterson, Mendel “Les sites d’épaves des Amériques” in L’archéologie subaquatique, une discipline naissante, Unesco, Paris, 1973: 83-92.
Smith, Roger & Keith, Donald & Lakey, Denise "The Highborn Cay Wreck: Further exploration of a 16th century Bahaman shipwreck" IJNA (1985) 14.1: 63-72.