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?

Can we weight the importance of their study against the earnings of a small bunch of treasure hunters? I don't think so.

And yet, most Portuguese ships have been destroyed by looters or treasure hunters wherever they are found.

For those who don't know, the difference between treasure hunters and looters is a mere technicality: the first are supposed to have licenses to destroy the shipwrecks they salvage, and the second are supposed to destroy them illegally. Treasure hunters may leave us pictures, often times in auction catalogs; looters generally leave us nothing.

This page is therefore intended as a detailed and clear explanation about what we believe must be done with every shipwreck found around the world.

Their rapid evolution through the period 1500-1640 reflects the cultural changes of their makers: necessity, ideology, technological advances, changes in taste, foreign influences, supply and demand dynamics, and other factors worth studying.

These ships were made in a world that knew no industrialization and are all unique artifacts. To understand the culture that produced them we need a large sample.

Treasure Hunters and Archaeology

Some treasure hunters have voiced their frustrations regarding the logics of their business. To them time is money. They work for profit. Therefore they must act fast, salvage whatever they can, avoid wasting time recording anything or spending money preserving artifacts without market value.

Understandably, they have to avoid letting archaeologists see whatever they leave behind. I suspect that it is not pretty. And it is part of their marketing strategy to avoid discussing the destructions left behind.

Peter Throckmorton wrote that a particular treasure hunter dynamited his site after salvaging the porcelain cargo in an attempt to erase from the face of the earth. A treasure hunter that I know personally said recently about a shipwreck that he has salvaged somewhere that he treated it like a baby. Yet, he is not disclosing its location or showing any pictures of the site, before, during, or after the salvage operations.

Without even dreaming of approving what they do, I would like them to understand how important the sites they destroy are, and ask them to record at least a small number of important pieces of information, and then share them with us.

I believe that it is possible to make treasure hunting illegal worldwide and I spend a lot of time every year lobbying to have treasure hunting illegalize in many countries. In the mean time, I believe that we have an obligation to try to improve the situation within the boundaries of what is possible to achieve.

Archaeologists and Archaeology

Having experienced all sorts of dysfunctional behaviors from my colleagues, I think that it is only fair to write here that treasure hunters are only a part of the problem. Many Iberian shipwrecks have been excavated by archaeologists and never published, and I know more than one case of their remains having been left to dry by the state agencies in theory responsible by their conservation.

State bureaucrats in several countries use their agencies as private clubs, sit on archaeological sites forever without publishing a line, don't let anybody dig anything, anywhere, don't publish their finds, only share their reports with a small group of their friends, and some even organize their tribal little wars internationally.

This is another reason why we know so few about Iberian seafaring.

Raw Data

Ideally, all shipwrecks that cannot be protected should be disassembled, their timbers recorded in detail, and the raw data made available through publications.

This is not possible for obvious reasons. Most countries have other, far more important, priorities than their underwater cultural heritage.

Anyway, if we are to aim high, this would be the best solution: do not touch anything unless we have a good reason, and produce and share a full recording of any site we touch, for any reason.

A Ship in Parts

In this section, which I expect to be always under construction, we intend to present a detailed description of an India nau's hull, with the variations, uncertainties and relevant questions that we are aiming at answering at any given stage of the research.

The best way to go about describing one of these elaborated structures is to disassemble them piece by piece. We want to know how each timber was fashioned and assembled. Actually, we would like to know how each timber was grown. Were they pruned? Were they shaped while they were growing?

But design and construction sequence are more important to us at the present state of the research.

1. Site Plan

Site plans are important, mostly if we cannot afford to bring each timber up, record it properly, photograph all tool marks and measure all fastening marks. This information is important to establish a number of important things later on.

For instance, in certain cultures, as the Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries, shipwrights assembled the hull planking with temporary fasteners and this process leaves marks of the temporary nails on the plank's faces. These marks should be recorded in situ, weather we are planning to raise all timbers of a particular site or not.

We do not know how the Portuguese erected the hulls above the first futtocks. Were the second futtocks supported by scaffolds? Were they sandwiched between the stringers and the wales, and their final positions defined through the runs of the hull strakes to which they were fastened?

Pictures are always a good help and the least we can say about them is that we can never take too many. Treasure hunters should try to make mosaics of the sites at different stages of their work, and take as many detailed pictures as possible, always with a scale. Some treasure hunters are already making mosaics of the sites before disturbance.

Beyond the obvious reasons regarding to the relations between artifacts and their positions on the shipwreck site, a good recording of the site plan will allow a better understanding of the site formation process, the way in which each piece end up it each particular position.

Remember, we are trying to reconstruct the ship as it was before the shipwreck. Although the account of the loss of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires is lost, a letter suggests that the wind fell suddenly, while the ship was in front of the fortress, and the waves and tide drove it to the rocks.

It also suggests that the upper portion of the stern castle broke away and drifted to the fortress, and both the hull remains and an anchor we found a few hundred years away, hooked on a rocky outcrop and bent in the direction of the ship remains, suggest that the orientation of the keel when the vessel hit the rocks was as indicated here, in Kevin's drawing.

The distribution of the artifacts around the site is absolutely compatible with the presumed position of the hull.

For instance, two of the three astrolabes and the two dividers found were all located in the area were the stern broke, on the port side of the presumed position of the ship.

We know that a number of guns were salvaged right after the shipwreck, and some were looted in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, there were two guns on the site, also both located to port side of the shipwreck, suggesting that it listed in that direction after hitting the bottom.

Often times ships have great stories. For instance, in 1978 archaeologists found the archaeological remains of an American China packet named Niantic. It had been built in Connecticut in 1835 and destroyed by fire in 1851, on the waterfront of San Francisco, CA, where it had been beached and transformed into a storeship. During its 16-year life Niantic was a merchantman, then a whaler, then a passenger ship, transporting adventurers to San Francisco during the gold rush, and finally was transformed into a building on that city's waterfront. All this information was stored in the bilge of Niantic's remains: about 4,000 artifacts related to each one of the phases of the ship's life.

Due to its small dimensions, the Pepper Wreck site plan was made from 1:1 drawings, and corrected with tape measures and sketches. There are other ways to record ship's hulls and affordable software is available to both amateur divers and treasure hunters.

Often times it is not possible, or even desirable, to excavate the sites entirely and measures should be taken to cover and protect the undisturbed portions of a shipwreck.

As mentioned previously, treasure hunters tend to be particularly destructive after sacking the sites of materials with market value and avoid spending money protecting the remains.

The group that salvaged the Molasses Reef Wreck dynamited the site out of spite when they learned that archaeologists from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology had won a permit to excavate it.

We hope to contribute to develop a more responsible atitude among treasure hunters - and perhaps even the politicians that support their activity - by showing how much information could be retrieved from a site such as the Pepper Wreck, which was both salavaged and looted.


Site plans and photographic mosaics are almost useless without sections. Stratigraphy and curvature of the timber structures are as important as the horizontal projection we designate as site plan.

Sections can be taken by many different sorts of ways, and again, affordable software is available that can make these tasks easy and relatively quick.

Again, pictures should be taken to illustrate the process. Unreliable data, obtained in sloppy ways is generally worse than the absence of data. It is not uncommon for treasure hunters to lie about the sites, claim that "there was only a gun port" and the rest were lumps of ingots lying on the sand, ready to be picked up without the need to disturb anything. This attitude should be avoided. In the treasure hunting particular case hypocrisy is a far worse crime than greed.

Timber Recording

The ShipLab and the Center for the Study of Digital Libraries at Texas A&M University are working to build a library of ship timbers and a database of relative dimensions and scantlings.

It is a daunting task, but it is progressing in good rythm.

Only a small number of the Pepper Wreck hull timbers were raised and carefully recorded.

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