Oldest European Shipwreck Discovered

March 20th, 2016 by

The oldest shipwreck that dates back to Europe’s “Age of Exploration,” which traces its origins to the 15th century, has been discovered in waters off the coast of Oman, a country situated in the southeast portion of the Arabian Peninsula.

Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama

A wealth of fantastic artifacts have been recovered in the course of finding the ship. The shipwreck is attributed to the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who made many trips in search of a sea route around the southern tip of Africa. Da Gama is also credited with providing valuable new information for excellent new maps that gave Europeans a more correct concept of how the rest of the world actually looks geographically.

Exploring the Esmeralda

According to historical records, “[da Gama’s ships] were supposed to patrol the waters off the southwest Indian coast and protect the newly established Portuguese factories. Instead, they sailed to the Gulf of Aden between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, where they looted Arab ships, sparing no lives and burning every ship after their plunder.”

Oman-mapThe unbelievably old shipwreck was actually first located in the Omani waters in 1998. It was not until 2013, however, that excavations and exploration of the wreck got underway. The location of the Portuguese ship’s remains in a bay near the Al Hallaniyah island in the Arabian Sea points toward it either belonging to da Gama’s Esmeralda or its sister ship, the São Pedro.

The tiny island resides a mere 28 miles off the mainland. Both ships sunk off of the Omani coast amid a vicious storm in May 1503. Their anchors proved no match for the strong winds that flung the two vessels against the unforgiving rocks of the coast, killing all of those aboard.

While researcher cannot definitely conclude which of the two ships they have found, the fact that the Esmeralda‘s captain’s initials, “VS” (for Vicente Sodré, Vasco da Gama’s uncle on his mother’s side), appear on cannonballs found at the site points toward this wreckage belonging to the Esmeralda rather than the São Pedro.

What Did They Find?

Source: Discovery

Lisbon gold coins. Source: Discovery

More than 2,800 artifacts have been recovered from the site of the 500-year-old shipwreck, although time (and the ravages of the wreck) has done away with any of the wood of the ship. As is often the case, it was the cannonballs that were the key marker of the origins of the find. Exploration and undersea excavation was conducted in partnership with Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture.

Indio silver coin. Source: Discovery

Indio silver coin. Source: Discovery

The main discoveries included a bronze bell inscribed with “1498,” suggestive of the year the ship was build; a copper disc that bears the Portuguese coat of arms; a slew of gold coins from Lisbon (the Portuguese capital) dating between 1495 and 1501; and an exceptionally rare silver coin known as “Indio” that was intended for trade with India (where Portuguese ships were typically headed). The Indio coin is one of just two known extent specimens.


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