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The Pepper Wreck

The Pepper wreck was found on the Tagus River mouth, Lisbon, Portugal, in 1993, during an archaeological survey promoted by the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, directed by Francisco Alves.

Starboard garboard plank (Photo: Gui Garcia)

From 1996 to 1998 it was excavated by the Instituto Português de Arqueologia / Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática as part of the program of the Portuguese pavilion at the 1998 world exhibition EXPO'98.

In 1999 and 2000 the remains of its hull were excavated by the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática, with the support of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology / Texas A&M University.

Hull remains in 1996 (Photo: Francisco Alves, CNANS)

Its excavation yielded a large collection of artifacts dated from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and lead to the tentative identification of this shipwreck as the nau Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, wrecked on September 15 1606 on its way back from Cochin, in India.

The study of its hull remains - which include a portion of the keel, eleven frames, and some of the planking - yielded interesting results and a first glance at these largely unknown ships: the Portuguese naus da India.


India Route Shipwrecks

The objective of this project is the study of the Portuguese Indiamen that sailed annually from Lisbon to India, from 1498 to the mid-17th century.

Their size, complexity, and constantly evolving shape and rigging make these ships one of the most exciting mysteries of the history of shipbuilding.

Nau from Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu

Built with varying resources - timber scarcity seems to have been the only constant thing in the life of the India Route - over a period of one and a half centuries, India naus were never described in detail, rarely painted or drawn by skilled artists, and disappeared from the history of technology almost without a trace during the mid-17th century.

Since most of these ships have been found and looted by sports divers and treasure hunting companies, it is imperative to inventory all ships found, and gather as much information as possible about them.

It is also paramount to reach out to the community of looters and treasure hunters in order to explain what is not known and try to establish working relations.

Although it is not possible to work together - for lack of a common objective - it is possible to establish relations between archaeologists and those that destroy these hull remains in search of artifacts with market value.

Portuguese Indiamen are so rare, so badly known to us, and so important for the history of European shipbuilding, that any reliable piece of information will great help our quest to understand them.

Audrey Well's Virtual Nau

Many books and articles have been written about the Portuguese India route and the giant ships that sailed along the three oceans that separated Lisbon from its commercial factories in 16th century Asia.

With few archaeological remains available for study it is to form even a sketchy idea of what they looked like, based on written texts and impressionist images.

Virtual Model (Audrey Wells)

To build a three-dimensional model has forced us to review all available data, imagine every possible solution, and establish ranges of dimensional values for its spaces, divisions, structures and fittings.

Audrey Wells, a student in the Department of Visualization Sciences, is developing a model of the Pepper Wreck and trying to populate it with 450 people, their furniture, personal belongings, and firewood, food and water for six or seven months.

The remaining space should allow a cargo of 500 cubic meters of peppercorns and a lot of other spices, drugs, porcelains, precious items, rare animals, and an amazing array of exotic things brought home by Europeans from the most sophisticated places on Earth, in Africa and in Asia.


Treasure Hunting

Most Iberian shipwrecks have been destroyed by treasure hunters.

The ShipLab is developing an outreach effort to engage in dialog, discuss, inform, and lobby against this activity, which is destroying forever the most important and best preserved India naus.


Reconstructing an India Nau

A group of researchers from the Unit of Marine Technology and Engineering (UETN) at Instituto Superior Técnico, Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal, under the direction of Dr. Nuno Fonseca, and the ShipLab, are trying to establish a methodology to test and evaluate the sailing abilities of an India nau.

Structural model (Tomás Vacas, UETN)

Based on the information retrieved from the archaeological remains, compounded with the knowledge obtained from almost 100 years of studies on iconography and contemporary written sources, both literary and technical, the main objectives of this project are:

a) To obtain a plausible configuration for the hull, masts, spars, rigging and sail plan of an India nau;

b) To try to understand the complexities of the construction sequence and structural details, determining the fundamental characteristics of these ships in terms of total weight, weight distribution, displacement and trim;

c) To assess the sailing abilities under different weather conditions, in terms of stability, propulsion force, resistance, performance regarding the waves, and maneuverability; and

d) To assess the ship's structural strength to extreme and fatigue loads.

Kevin Gnadinger Virtual Tour

In cooperation with the Texas A&M University Wilder Laboratory, undergraduate student Kevin Gnadinger is developing a virtual model of the Pepper Wreck for didactic purposes.

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.

Hull remains: 3D reconstruction (Kevin Gnadinger)

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.


Carlos Montalvão's Model

Based on the data developed in the project of reconstruction of an India nau, Carlos Montalvão, a skilled model maker and a MA student at the Universidade de Lisboa, under Dr. Francisco Contente Domingues, is building a model of the Pepper Wreck, as reconstructed by the team working at Texas A&M University and Instituto Superior Técnico.

Carlos Montalvão's Model

The main objectives of this project are the study of the ship's internal division of spaces and it's rigging plan.

Alex Hazlett's Nau

Nautical Archaeology Program Alex Hazlett has reconstructed, step by step, a Portuguese India nau following a list of timbers from a c. 1590 document titled "Medidas pera fazer hua nao de seiscentas tonelladas, e os paos q hà de leuar de souoro e pinho."

Alex' Nau from the Livro náutico

This list is part of a precious manuscript in Portugal's Biblioteca Nacional, titled Livro nautico ou meio pratico de construção de navios, e galés antigas, which the ShipLab and the National Library are working to make available on-line.

Not focusing too much on the hull shape, Alex has been able to place each of the timbers in its right place and deduce many of the scantlings with a good degree of certainty.

Alex' Nau from the Livro náutico

His seminal work - which was the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation - has been the basis for further structural studies and stands as a major contribution to the understanding of Portuguese shipbuilding practices in the period under analysis.




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Last Updated: 10/14/08