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The Pepper Wreck

Virtual Tour

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


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1. A Ship in Parts


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.



Site Plans


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.

Schematic representation of the hypothetical last ship position (Kevin Gnadinger)

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.

Site plan, 2001 (Filipe Castro).

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.


Scheme of the frame sections with the "graminhos" (geometric algorythms).



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.

Floor timber number VIIII (C3 on the site plan).








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