Divers were exploring a section of seabed in September 2018 off the coast of Portugal, not far from the country’s main port and capital Lisbon. As on any dive, they were hoping to find something interesting. But what they did find blew “interesting” right out of the water.
In fact, the divers are part of a team that’s been working for the past 10 years with the Cascais Underwater Archaeological Chart Project. They’ve been mapping the seabed off the pretty Portuguese fishing and resort town of Cascais, which is some 15 miles to the west of Lisbon.
The purpose of the project is to learn more about the historical significance of the nearby marine environment as well as to find ways of conserving it. And the waters of this coast are well known for the shipwrecks that lie at the bottom of the sea, vessels that have sunk over the centuries.
The port of Lisbon lies at the mouth of the Tagus River while Cascais is just along the coast from where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean. In its day in the 15th and 17th centuries, Lisbon was the center of European exploration of the New World.
And that pioneering role in world exploration and discovery meant that Lisbon was also a leading center of commerce in Europe, with ships embarking for and returning from every corner of the world laden with trade goods and untold riches.
In what was known as the Age of Discovery, lasting from the 15th through the 17th centuries, Portuguese explorers founded colonies in the Americas. In what’s been called its golden era, Lisbon was the European center for trade with Brazil, India, Africa and the Far East, including China.
Ships laden with trade goods left the port of Lisbon to return months or even years later laden with exotic spices, fine fabrics and sugar for the sweet-toothed. More sinister, Portuguese merchants were also heavily involved in the African slave trade.
And most of those vessels would have left Portugal via the mouth of the Tagus. On the return journey across the Atlantic, ships would have sailed back up the Tagus to the harbor in Lisbon. And that means the waters around Cascais are a well-known location for wrecks.
Talking to Reuters news agency, Luis Mendes, Portugal’s Minister of Culture, described the area around the meeting of the Tagus and the Atlantic as a “hotspot” for shipwrecks. And his view was borne out in September 2018 with the sensational discovery of a previously unknown wreck.
Maritime archaeologist and scientific director of the Cascais Underwater Archaeological Chart Project Jorge Freire had no doubt about the significance of the discovery. He told Reuters, “From a heritage perspective, this is the discovery of the decade. In Portugal, this is the most important find of all time.”
Freire described the discovery to The Guardian, “We found the ship on 4 September, using a geophysical survey and divers, and spent four days working on the site.” And he put a date on the wreck. ”We don’t know the name of the ship, but it’s a Portuguese ship from the late 16th or early 17th century,” Freire said.
Freire could give that date because of some of the discoveries on the seabed. One of the cannons within the area of the wreck had a Portuguese coat of arms that could be dated. Also, there was fine porcelain from China’s Wanli period, dating from 1573 to 1619.
Highlighting the importance of the find, Freire told the The Guardian, “It tells us a great deal about Cascais’ maritime history and identity. It’s like we’ve been telling the local people here: this is a great discovery and its greatness lies in what it, and the artifacts, can tell is about the cultural landscape.”
The wreck is in some 40 feet of water off the coastline at Cascais. Remnants of the ship and its cargo stretch across an area about 330 feet by about half that. And what the divers saw astonished them – a treasure trove of artifacts from four centuries ago.
Scattered among the rocks and sand were spices, including peppercorns, and broken pieces of exquisite, blue-patterned Chinese porcelain. Massive bronze cannons emblazoned with the Portuguese coat of arms lay higgledy-piggledy around the seabed.
Researchers believe the ship was on a return journey, which explains its lading with spices and fine ceramics. Also found among the wreck’s debris were cowrie shells. This may be an indication that the vessel was involved in the slave trade. That is because cowrie shells were used as a form of currency to buy slaves.
Archaeologists will now study the remains of the ship in an effort to identify it. But Freire has already indicated that it may well be of a similar build to another shipwreck, discovered in 1994. The wreck of Nossa Senhora dos Mártires (Our Lady of the Martyrs) was also found in waters near Cascais. And it was close to a military base, Fort of Sao Juliao da Barra.
The Daily Mail quoted Freire as saying, “We see the shield of Portugal and the armillary sphere. So out there, we are surely talking about a finding of national design very similar to that which was Our Lady of the Martyrs.”
Our Lady of the Martyrs was known to have sailed east in pursuit of the spice trade. Then it sank almost within sight of Lisbon in 1606. And Freire’s team said that this latest shipwreck was actually in better condition than the 1994 discovery.
We will undoubtedly hear more about this ship once archaeologists have unlocked the secrets of the wreck. But in the meantime Carlos Carreiras, the mayor of Cascais, is clearly delighted by this discovery. “It’s an extraordinary discovery that allows us to know more about our history, reinforcing our collective identity and shared values,” he told The Guardian.