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The Pepper Wreck

Virtual Tour

Citation information: Filipe Castro, "The Pepper Wreck Virtual Tour",, last updated in February 2008.



What Archaeologits Do


Archaeologists do not go to exotic places to retrieve exciting artifacts for museums or private collectors.



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.

Kevin Gnadinger's rotating 3D drawing of our reconstruction of the Pepper Wreck. (Left-click: pans; Right-clik: rotates; Shift + Cursor: zooms).

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.

Representation of the conjectural reconstruction together with the hull remains (Kevin Gnadinger) 

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.


Porcelains from a Portuguese shipwreck on the cover of an auction catalog.

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.

 View of Lisbon from Livro de Horas de D. Manuel I.




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.

I would like to make this webpage a place where the destructions of treasure hunters can be mitigated, a place where the standard can be raised.

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.





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Last Updated: 10/14/08