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Group for the Study of Iberian Seafaring

The study of the Iberian expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries has been the subject of perhaps thousands of books. Scholars know quite well the intellectual environment in which the voyages of exploration and colonization were planned and carried out, the difficulties encountered by sailors trying to find their way on open sea, the instruments and calculations available to estimate the ship's latitude and longitude at sea, and the incredible skills of fifteenth century map makers.

This project is possible through the generous support of Dr. and Mrs. Peter Amaral, the Luso-American Foundation, The Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and CMAC.

Art historians have studied the tastes, the artistic trends and the architectural styles that determined the landscape and have a fair idea of which paintings and tapestries they hung on their walls, the images they worshiped, the music they listened to, their theater plays, poems and favorite fiction. Their material culture is also fairly well known to us. Archaeologists have uncovered their daily life artifacts everywhere; they have established chronologies for styles, trends and fashions in furniture, pottery, glass wares, table wares, clothes, jewelry and weapons for the entire period of the European expansion overseas.

However, their ships are almost completely unknown to us. There is no solid knowledge about these ships besides the countless amateur reconstructions that have populated our imagination since the late 19th century.

There are no complete written descriptions of these vessels, the iconographical evidence is scarce and not always reliable, and most of the archaeological sites have been either destroyed by looters and treasure hunters, or never published by the archaeologists that have excavated them.

State bureaucrats all around the World have shown little interest in the protection of these ships, and an unknown number has been destroyed forever, by looters, treasure hunters, and archaeologists.

Iberian Ships

The ships of the Portuguese and Spanish were perhaps the best of their time, the most sophisticated machines built in Europe, and the artifacts without which it is difficult to imagine the history of the New World.

And yet we have no theories on how they were created, nor on how they have evolved, filling in new niches, adapting to the requirements of new maritime routes, new cargoes, or new functions, adopting features from other ships, dropping features that ceased to be useful, or perceived as such.

We also lack theories to try to explain the evolution of these ships against the social, economical, and political background in which they were thought, conceived, built, and operated, in a fast changing world that witnessed the rise of the modern, centralized state in Europe.

Most Iberian shipwrecks have been savaged by treasure hunters in search of artifacts with market value and short term profit.

Their study is an exciting endeavor, and here at Texas A&M University we are gathering, analyzing, and classifying all the information we can find about them (see NADL Project).

Iberian Ships Bibliography

Most ships built in the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries have been destroyed by looters and treasure hunters.

It is believed that these were the best and most sophisticated ships of their times, but we know so few about them that we are not even sure whether there were any substantial differences between Spanish and Portuguese ships, and those of their enemies and friends.

This project's objective is to inventory and keeping a record of the ships found for which there is any written information.

Early 16th nau (master from Lourinhã)

Often times looters and treasure hunters destroy these ships without ever letting a single word about them transpire, and many archaeologists never publish the results of their excavations.

This project is therefore opened to anybody interested. All information that may help us keep information as complete and accurate as possible is welcome.

Iberian Ships Project

This project was created in 2004 within the ShipLab to study the ships built in the Iberian Peninsula during the period of the European expansion, in the 15th through 17th centuries.

Its mission is the study and divulgation of the evolution of ocean going Iberian ships in comparison with the contemporary ships of other European nations.

Preliminary results and research questions have been presented at the 2006 Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting, which took place in Sacramento, on the 15th of January. The symposium was titled "Edge of Empire."

The communications presented at this symposium were published in a book edited by Filipe Castro and Katie Custer.

This project is a continuation of the work started by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in the late 1970s, with the excavation of the Portuguese frigate Santo António de Taná in Mombasa, Kenya, under the direction of Robin Piercy and Jeremy Green.

Research on Iberian seafaring was continued by INA Explorers' Team EXPLADISC, whose work in the 1980s and early 1990s set the foundations for the study of Iberian seafaring and shipbuilding from the archaeological viewpoint.


This is a long term project that will hopefelly include the cooperation of scholars from many different disciplines. Since 2005 the ShipLab has been working with Secção Autónoma de Engenharia Naval of Instituto Superior Técnico, Lisbon, Portugal.

In 2007 the Group grew again to encompass scholars from another three institutions: the Centro de História da Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa, the Centro de Estudos do Mar da Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa, and the Direcção de Projecto Ciência e Descobrimentos / Câmara Municipal de Lagos.

The pioneers - From left to right: Donald H. Keith, Denise Lakey, Joe Simmons, Mark Meyers, Bill Lamb, Roni Polk, Harding Polk, Tom Oertling, Roger C. Smith, and KC Smith. See: INA Newsletter 13.1, from March 1986 - "Rediscovering Ships of Discovery", and see also: Ships of Discovery.

Some of their followers - From left to right: Carlos Monroy, Pearce Creasman, Blanca Rodriguez, Alex Hazlett, George Schwarz, Tiago Fraga, Filipe Castro, Brad Coombes, Katie Custer, and Erika Laanela. Gustavo Garcia is not in this picture, but his important contribution must be acknowledged.


This project is possible through the generous support of:

Dr. Peter Amaral

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Last Updated: 10/14/08