In clear blue waters off the coast of Oman, a team of archaeologists scan the seabed for relics from ancient times. Then, one by one, the treasures of a long-lost shipwreck begin to emerge. The researchers are on the cusp of one of underwater archaeology’s most important revelations – a find that could transform our understanding of Europe’s so-called Age of Discovery.
Back in 1998, a shipwreck was found in the Arabian Sea near the island of Al Hallaniyah, part of Oman’s Khuriya Muriya Islands. In fact, the find was the result of six months of research by marine scientist David Mearns, whose team was on the trail of a pair of famous Portuguese ships thought to have been lost in the early 16th century.
After poring over historical archives, Mearns and his colleagues had identified Al Hallaniyah as the possible final resting place of the Esmeralda and the São Pedro, which had once both belonged to a fleet of ships led by the renowned explorer Vasco da Gama. And, after spending just 20 minutes snorkeling around the area, they spotted wreckage that clearly came from a European vessel.
Then, in 2013, a team from Mearns’ firm Blue Water Recoveries joined forces with the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture to properly investigate the wreck. With funding from the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council, they were able to uncover some truly fascinating finds.
The wreck site covers several gullies off the north-east coast of Al Hallaniyah, in a region around 28 miles south of mainland Oman. Experts believe that its remote location may explain why looters never touched it.
Between the years 2013 and 2016, investigators recovered around 2,800 artifacts from the site. And by studying the finds, they have since been able to determine that the wreck could well be that of the Esmerelda – a ship that left Lisbon, Portugal, in 1502, bound for India.
In the 15th century, Europe launched a prolonged period of exploration and colonialism that would become known as the Age of Discovery. Several European countries began to extend their empires out across the world, and competition to discover new trade routes and alliances was tough.
One of the most prominent figures in this race to conquer the world was the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. Indeed, between 1497 and 1499, he successfully led the first voyage to travel between Europe and India by sea.
Then, on 12 February 1502, Da Gama left Portugal to return to India for a second time. Local authorities in the South Indian region of Kerala had begun rebelling against Portuguese rule, and the task of reasserting the Empire’s dominance in the area fell to the Fourth India Armada.
The following year, Da Gama returned to Portugal, leaving his uncle Vicente Sodré and a fleet of five ships behind. But although their mission was to look after Portuguese factories on the Indian coast, Sodré and his brother Brás set sail for the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea.
There, they began raiding and robbing Arabian ships in the region. Their reign of terror continued until May 1503, when disaster struck the squadron while it was moored at Al Hallaniyah.
Despite warnings from the locals, the pillagers anchored their ships out in the bay and the vessels were subsequently hit by a storm. The São Pedro, Brás’ vessel, was washed ashore, but the crew of the Esmeralda were not so lucky. The ship was smashed against the rocks, and its complement – including Sodré – were all drowned.
The Esmerelda was by no means the only vessel to suffer such a fate. In fact, experts believe that as many as 20 percent of the ships attempting to make the crossing from Europe to India ended up on the ocean floor.
For underwater archaeologists, then, these wrecks provide a great opportunity to recover relics from a bygone age. However, until now, the oldest vessel identified from this period of exploration was the São Joao, dated to 1552. With their recent find, however, Mearns and his team believe that they have discovered the earliest shipwreck yet from the Age of Discovery.
One of the most significant artifacts uncovered from the wreck was an ancient ship’s bell. A scan revealed the number 498 had been inscribed on the object, allowing researchers to conclude that it was made in 1498. This date provided the first indication that the team could well be looking at one of Da Gama’s fleet.
Researchers also recovered several coins from the site that further hint at the ship’s identity. Discoveries included a dozen Portuguese gold coins dated between 1477 and 1495, along with a silver coin from 1499 so rare that experts call it the “Ghost Coin.”
Further piquing archaeologists’ interest was a mysterious disc bearing the emblem of the Portuguese king Manuel I. Experts believe that it could once have formed part of a navigation device, perhaps even of a type never seen before.
Tellingly, stone cannonballs bearing the carved initials V.S. have also been recovered from the site – another indication that the ship was perhaps once under the command of Vincente Sodré. These armaments formed part of a formidable artillery which also included firearms and bullets.
Experts now believe that they have enough evidence to conclusively identify the wreck as that of the Esmeralda. Furthermore, they assert that its military cargo reveals some revolutionary facts about the fleet’s true mission. “Together they provide tangible proof of the military objectives of this fleet,” the researchers said in a statement, “as ordered by Dom Manuel and brutally carried out by Vasco da Gama and his two uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré.”
As the first excavation of its kind to take place in the waters off Oman, the success of Mearns’ mission has subsequently inspired the local government to carry on searching for other finds. Meanwhile, experts are continuing to study the artifacts recovered from the ship. Eventually, they will go on display in Oman’s National Museum so everyone can marvel at this fascinating time capsule.