History Beneath the Waves
The archaeological treasures of tropical waters
By Ruud Stelten, maritime archaeologist and director of The Shipwreck Survey
The waters of the Caribbean are littered with archaeological remains, from small artifacts such as pieces of pottery to large shipwrecks and even entire sunken cities. Through my organization The Shipwreck Survey, I study underwater archaeological sites in order to reconstruct the past and shed new light on the history of the region.
The past few years of research have yielded some very exciting results. Much of our work has taken place on St. Eustatius, a small island in the northeastern Caribbean. St. Eustatius was one of the busiest ports in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. Over 3,000 ships dropped anchor in its roadstead annually to trade goods from every corner of the globe. Commerce on the island was facilitated by some 200 warehouses along its leeward shore. As sea levels rise and beaches erode at an alarming rate, a number of warehouse ruins are now submerged. In 2019, we mapped and documented these sites in detail in order to ensure their proper management and preservation. In some cases, it was possible to link certain remains to buildings pictured on historical drawings of the island.
In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria stirred up the sea floor around St. Eustatius, thereby exposing a previously unknown shipwreck. While its wooden hull had already been eaten by teredo worms, the presence of hundreds of ballast bricks and countless spikes and fasteners were clear indicators of a shipwreck site. Many objects used on board, such as wine bottles, cutlery, ceramic plates and cups, and even a cannon, were found scattered across the site. The wreck was carefully mapped and several dozen artifacts recovered and conserved. The artifacts and historical records indicate that this ship sank in the mid-eighteenth century during a hurricane and was most likely trading Caribbean produce such as sugar and rum.
Some 1,000 kilometers to the northwest, in the Turks & Caicos Islands, we documented two very different types of shipwrecks. These islands’ historical significance lies in the production of salt, a highly sought after product in the colonial period due to its ability to conserve food. Salt Cay, one of the smallest inhabited islands in the archipelago, is still largely covered in salt ponds. Off its northern shore, we discovered the partially buried remains of a wooden ship. Its wooden hull was still fairly intact, indicating that it had only been exposed recently, most likely during a tropical storm. We documented its timbers and created a photomosaic which serves as a baseline for monitoring this site in the future. Documentary records indicate this is most likely the wreck of the Gustavus, a brig that came to take in a cargo of salt but foundered on the northern reefs of Salt Cay in 1855.
Two hours south of Salt Cay lies a very different wreck, that of the HMS Endymion, a British 44-gun warship. In 1790, the Endymion hit an uncharted reef, started taking on water, and sank within two days. She now rests in 30 feet of water, next to the rock that caused her demise. Her wooden hull is completely gone, but scattered across the site are dozens of cannons, several enormous anchors, ballast, and numerous other metal components of the ship. The Endymion is very remote and only accessible on days when the water is very calm, so not many people get to see the wreck site. We had a one-day weather window to visit the site in early 2019, during which we documented as much of the wreck as possible. Hundreds of overlapping photos were taken of the site, which were colour corrected and processed by 3D modelling software to recreate the wreck virtually. This will allow people to see and study the remains of the Endymion remotely. We also managed to locate the original ship’s log, which allowed us to study the wrecking event in detail and shed light on the lives of the people who served on the ship.
UNESCO estimates there to be 3 million shipwrecks spread across ocean floors around the planet. Thousands of these are found in the Caribbean. While we have made some exciting discoveries in the past couple of years, were are only beginning to scratch the surface of what still lies hidden beneath the waves. With every shipwreck discovered, every artifact studied, and every ruin mapped, we are learning more about the fascinating maritime history of the Caribbean region.
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