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An Analysis of Navigational Instruments in the Age of Exploration:   15th Century to Mid-17th Century

Lois Ann Swanick
Thesis: December 2005
Chair:  Smith




    During the Age of Exploration, navigation evolved from a field filled with superstition into a modern science in Portugal, Spain, and England. The most common navigation instruments utilized and their subsequent innovations are discussed. The refinement of these instruments led to increased accuracy in cartography, safer shipping, and increased trade globally in the period.

    In order to have the most comprehensive collection of navigation instruments, I investigated 165 shipwrecks dated between 1500 and 1700. Each of these vessels have been located, surveyed, and/or excavated in whole or in part. A comprehensive list of these vessels, compiled for the first time, has been included. This thesis analyzes navigation-related artifacts recovered from 27 of these shipwreck sites. These instruments provide the basis to develop a typology for archaeologists to more closely date these finds.

    The navigation instruments recovered from the wreck of LaBelle (1686) are discussed in detail. These instruments and related historical documents kept by the navigator provide a more comprehensive picture of the instruments’ accuracy and usefulness. This thesis particularly focuses on the nocturnal/planisphere recovered from the site. This unique instrument is one of only four known to exist worldwide and remains accurate enough to be utilized today. Analysis by a modern astronomer has been included, as well as a partial translation of the common names for constellations inscribed on the instrument. These common names provide some important insights into the received knowledge of sailors and non-academic astronomy during this period.

    It is hoped that this thesis will be of assistance to archaeologists working to identify, study, and appreciate navigational instruments recovered from shipwrecks. With increased documentation and closer dating, these instruments will become a more valuable portion of the archaeological record.

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