The Pepper Wreck Virtual Tour

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Text by Filipe Castro


Ships were and still are complex machines, perhaps among the most sophisticated artifacts built by men at all times. For this reason it is often times difficult to explain the importance of the archaeological record to the general public, journalists, politicians and treasure hunters.

The ShipLab team would like to explain how exciting and interesting the history of shipbuilding is, and hopefully raising people's awareness towards this subject.

Our main objective is to engage sport divers, looters, and treasure hunters in constructive discussions about shipbuilding and try to salvage whatever information is possible to salvage from archaeological sites salvaged or looted.

This project intends to be a guide to the basic archaeological recording of one of these shipwrecks.

What Archaeologists Do

This page is intended as an explanation of what archaeologists do. Often times I have been asked - mostly by treasure hunting supporters - about the relevance of our work at the ShipLab, and the differences between what we do and what treasure hunters do.

At the ShipLab we have gathered as much information as we could find on 16th century Iberian shipbuilding, and now we can make a strong case for the importance of the study of this subject, and consequently argue for the necessity to protect the few shipwreck sites still left untouched from the destructions of treasure hunters and looters .

The Pepper Wreck is an almost perfect case-study to explain what we do and why.

It was destroyed and scattered in the shipwrecking process, it was salvaged by skilled divers in subsequent summers (at least until 1612), it was probably smashed by the 1755 tidal waves that followed the earthquake, and it was looted in the 1970s and 1980s.

From what was left, we have reconstructed the site formation process, recorded the archaeological remains, and reconstructed the original ship, to the best of our knowledge.

The drawings presented here pretend to illustrate the conjectural reconstruction.

The model presented here is just an educated guess.

Now we are looking at this ship as a complex artifact, a machine designed to sail, be inhabited, carry cargo, people and ideas, exert power and provide protection to those who man and inhabit it.

We have also planned to look at it as a financial asset, part of a large and complex economic process.

Separately, we are attempting to address this ship as a cultural answer to a particular question: How can we [the 16th century Portuguese merchants] bypass the Ottoman-Venetian intermediaries and access the Asian markets directly?

And finally, we want to compare this ship with the other merchantmen of its time and try to understand the differences between the Portuguese ocean-going vessels and those of their neighbors and competitors, in the North of Europe and in the Mediterranean World.

Why is this Relevant?

Why should we study these archaeological remains instead of breaking them apart for short-term profit?

There are many answers to this question. The first is because the understanding of our past is paramount to our well-being.

Historian Howard Zinn said that a society without a memory would have to trust its politicians. It is difficult to conceive a civilization without roots.

Culture is the software of our minds. To understand who we are we must know where we came from.

And ships were and still are among the most complex and sophisticated artifacts produced by any society. The history of seafaring is a relevant part of the Human experience. As George Bass said, long before there were farmers there were sailors. Ships are means of transport, communication, and power.

And the Portuguese naus were the ships that first opened direct relations between Europe and East and West Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. These were the ships that first arrived with Europeans in India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Japan, and Indonesia, as well as Brazil.

Their economical and cultural importance is enormous. As Michael Krondl reminds us in a recent book (The Taste of Conquest, New York: Balantine Books, 2007), can you imagine Asian cuisine without the red peppers brought by the Portuguese from Brazil?

How many artifacts around the world attest the exciting intellectual climate experienced after the Portuguese and Spanish seafarers established economic, cultural and social contacts between the previously isolated populations of the Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas?

And yet we know so little about their ships: How were they conceived? How were they built? Why were they different (if they were different) from the Genoese carracks of their time?

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