Pepper Wreck: 2000 Field Season

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The fourth and final field season on the Pepper wreck finished in August 2000, at least in terms of the field work. It was sponsored by the Instituto Português de Arqueologia (IPA), through its underwater archaeology department, the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (CNANS), and the INA. In this last season we were also sponsored by MARCASCAIS, the company that manages the new marina of Cascais, where our boats were stationed. This wreck, thought to be the remains of an early 17th century Portuguese East Indiaman was discovered in 1994.

Excavation began in 1996 and yielded a collection of thousands of artifacts, as well as part of the hull structure. Objectives in 2000 were to complete the recording of the remaining hull timbers to permit study, analysis, and partial reconstruction of the hull.

Part of the timbers were raised, and part left in situ under a layer of sand bags, protected from the strong dynamics of the sea. A new area was inspected, a scarce 100 m from the SJB2 site, where timber remains had been spotted last winter by our longtime collaborator and close friend Carlos Martins. A very experienced diver, Carlos Martins has found most of the sites around São Julião da Barra, and has been our best guide to archaeological sites on that rough bottom. A layer of sand no less than 2 m thick, as well as a strong current, prevented us from reaching its level in the three trial trenches that we opened.

As it always happens in underwater archaeology, the conservation work and analysis of the artifacts will go on for a long time, as well as the reconstruction of the hull. In fact, the hull has shown to be the most important of the artifacts on this site. Although it consists of a very small portion of the bottom of the ship, its timbers, with construction marks engraved on their faces, speak volumes.

The wreck site is located within an area that might be termed an archaeological complex, a relatively small stretch of sea bottom containing several shipwrecks.

The strong dynamics of the sea and annual shift of sediments have combined to mix the artifacts of several shipwrecks, making this site at once an interesting and rich ship graveyard, but also a true nightmare for archaeologists, since the material culture represented in the collection of artifacts from this site encompasses a period of over 350 years. According to a database generated by CNANS, many wrecks were lost at the mouth of the Tagus, a general designation that encompasses a very extensive area. Fortunately, the area of the fortress of São Julião da Barra is small and well defined and having such a precise toponymy, most vessels lost here are specifically referred to in official documents as being lost off the fort, rather than at another, less precise designation.

The records often correspond with and explain the provenience of artifacts retrieved or located near São Julião da Barra. These known wrecks date from the late 16th century to the middle 20th century (Table I).

Table I

List of Wrecks in São Julião da Barra (Source: CNANS Database)
Year Ship Provenience Comments
1587 San Juan Baptista Lisbon Near the fortress
1606 Nossa Senhora dos Martires Cochin, India Under the walls of the fortress
1625 Sao Francisco Xavier Cochin, India Presumably near, south of the fortress
1733 Union St. Malo, France Near the fortress
1753 Dutch vessel Presumably near, east of the fortress
1802 English vessel Near the fortress
WWI Maria Eduarda Viana, Portugal Presumably near, west of the fortress
1966 Santa Mafalda Near the fortress

The first challenge of this study has been the identification of the Pepper wreck, or SJB2 as it is designated in the map of the complex. One important clue was a thin layer of peppercorns, covering the hull timbers and extending over a very large area which contained a very homogeneous collection of artifacts dating from the late 16th century and early 17th century. The Chinese, Japanese, and Burmese pottery found in the pepper layer can be dated from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and bears a great resemblance to the collection of the Manila galleon San Diego, wrecked in the Philippines in 1600. The porcelains, from the Wan-Li period, date from the 1590s and 1600s. An astrolabe found within the site bears the date of 1605, establishing the earliest date for the wreck.

The evidence we have uncovered points to one particular vessel, the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, a ship presumably built in Lisbon and employed in the Carreira da India, the lengthy voyage between Goa and Lisbon. Mártires wrecked off São Julião da Barra in 1606 on a return voyage from Cochim on the Malabar coast of India. The identity of the wreck as the Mártires is reinforced by the presence of large quantities of peppercorns, indicating a bulk cargo of pepper, and therefore an Asian origin for the trip of the wrecked vessel. A study of the woods utilized - cork oak (Quercus suber) and umbrella pine (Pinus pinea) - and the scantling dimensions leave no doubt that this is a Portuguese built hull (Tables II and III).

Table II

Units in use in Portuguese Shipyards in the 16th and 17th Centuries
Unit 16th/17th c. Equivalent SI Equivalent
Palmo de vara 1/7 of a rumo 22 cm.
Palmo de goa 1/6 of a rumo 25.67 cm.
Vara 5 palmos de vara 1.10 m.
Goa 3 palmos de goa 77 cm.
Rumo 2 goas, 6 palmos de goa, or 7 palmos de vara 1.54 m.
Polegada comum 1/8 of a palmo de vara 2.75 cm.
Polegada de goa 1 palmo de goa - 1 palmo de vara 3.67 cm.

Table III

SJB2 Scantlings
Timber Wood Sided Dimensions Molded Dimensions
Keel Cork oak 25 cm. Not preserved
Floors Cork oak 23-25 cm. 23-24 cm.
Futtocks Cork oak 21-25 cm. 11 cm.
Planking Umbrella pine 20-35 cm. 11 cm.
Apron Cork oak 38 cm. 25 cm.
Room-and-space 46.2 cm. avg.
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