The Race Against Time to Unravel the Secrets of an 18th Century Shipwreck

Fagjun | Published 2017-08-25 01:11

Conservation team members with artifacts from the wreck. [Photo by Lauren Hurley/PA]



Marine archaeologists are in a race against time to preserve an 18th century shipwreck, before the shifting deep sea sands expose the wreck to the elements.


The Dutch East India Company trading ship Rooswjik set sail for Jakarta from Amsterdam on January 7, 1740. It was the last time that the ship was seen afloat. It sank on January 9, 1740, though during those days, news of a shipwreck doesn't come to land immediately. When the ship didn't show up at the dock in the Cape of Good Hope after what would have been months of sailing, the Dutch East India Company started worrying.


Rooswjik was only a few years old, having been built in 1737, and was only on its second voyage. Just a day after setting sail, a storm drove the ship to the Goodwin Sands off the coast of Kent, England. The Goodwin Sands is a 10-mile long sand bank believed to have caused the demise of some 2,000 ships.


The Contents of a Shipwreck

Silver coins from the ship [Photo by Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum/PA]



There were no survivors. The ship was carrying silver, as well as about 250 passengers. No one is sure what actually caused the wreck, but marine archaeologists have been studying and excavating the wreckage for years. The archaeologists found silver coins strewn around the wreck, as well as other artifacts such as three unopened treasure chests. These chests may contain a fortune in silver ingots, but they it's also possible that they may contain nothing as well. Conventional x-rays won't be able to reveal the contents, but the archaeologists are loath to physically open the chests until further analysis.


There are also artifacts like spoons, shoes, knife handles, and pewter jugs in the wreck. Personal items can be just as intriguing as any other object in a wreck (or the wreck itself), since further study and analysis can reveal much about trading practices as well as life in 18th century Netherlands.


The shipwreck is a protected site due to its historical importance. 250 of the Dutch East India Company ships sank, but only a third have been found so far. The silty sands of Goodwin have long protected the wreck from decay as well as treasure hunters, but these sands are now shifting due to changing tidal patterns. Thus, excavation is urgent.


Lives Lost

A wooden chest that may contain a treasure, or something like a pair of socks [Photo by Steve Finn]



There's not much that we know of the 250 passengers of Rooswjik. However, their bones are among those found by archaeologists in the wreck. 11 of the passengers have been identified so far, though their names have not been released. It's possible that the identities of some of the other passengers will never be found. However, there are plans to take DNA samples from the remains to see if the passengers have living descendants.


It's a highly significant assemblage because it is so rare to find a lost crew on a shipwreck, captured in time at the moment when a catastrophe happened,” says marine archaeologist Mark Dunkley. “In that sense its like an underwater Pompeii.”


Perhaps soon, we'll learn more about this 18th century shipwreck and the people that perished in it.

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