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Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A historian in the waves of ForSEAdiscovery shipwrecks

By Koldo Trápaga Monchet

Since becoming involved in the ForSEAdiscovery project, I’ve been experimenting with the reality of being a multidisciplinary researcher. As a historian-cum-archaeologist, this has involved jumping in feet first – or fins first, as the case may be. The project’s nautical archaeology team is working on Age of Discovery shipwrecks located in Galicia, in the north of Spain, for the whole month of June. I arrived in Finisterre from Porto, ten days after the archaeological campaign on the Bayonnaise shipwreck had started. 

On 12 June, I travelled from Porto, where I’d spent the last four days at an exhausting academic conference, to Finisterre. It may look close on the map, but I had to take two trains and one bus, and among these three legs of the trip, I must have encountered at least fifty new places. At this point, I started developing a contradictory feeling. On one hand, it was exciting to pass through unknown places, but on the other, I was growing increasingly concerned that I would never actually arrive in Finisterre – which means ‘Land’s End’. It seemed like the train was somehow capable of conjuring up new stations every hour just to make the trip longer, just to toy with my sanity. 

The following day, still recuperating from travel-lag, I got ‘into the water’ to develop my scuba diving skills, which I have to hone as a newly-ordained nautical archaeologist. One thing I’m quickly learning is that divers are always hungry. So after my dive on the Bayonnaise, I devoured my usual brunch with unusual energy. 

As luck would have it (or not), less than 24 hours after my arrival came the next departure. We packed up and moved on from Finisterre to Viveiro, further up on the north coast. The team had a day off in Viveiro to get settled in, so I decided to go for a run and develop a clearer picture of this place where we would spend the following days. And again, after running, came that characteristic and immediate need for food. Whenever I’m in Spain, I have to eat my favorite dish: pintxo de tortilla. But being in a new city, and slowly dying of hunger, I spent two hours wandering around the village to track down a place to buy it!

The long awaited and well-deserved pinxto de tortilla! See recipe here.

The next day though, it was back to the water again, this time for La Magdalena shipwreck. Our dive team scoped out the shipwreck and looked for the best structural timbers to sample for dendroprovenance. As a PhD in history, though, my questions about La Magdalena instinctively took me to the Municipal Archive in Viveiro. Again, as luck would have it (or not), the Archive was closed, and the building seemed deserted. I called their phone number, but no one picked up. I was getting anxious, as historians do when locked outside the archive (We prefer to be locked inside.). So I decided to walk over to the City Hall and inquire.

Viveiro, Spain, village of coincidences and not a bad place to wander in search of archives and tortillas.

On the way there, I remembered that I needed to buy some aspirin, so I stopped at the pharmacy. There I asked the pharmacist about the archive and why it was closed. As luck would have it (for real this time), a man in the pharmacy overheard my inquiry. This man was a treasure trove of information regarding La Magdalena! He gave me an important volume based on primary sources along with a lot of other information. Even though the archivist won’t return from holiday until after I return to Porto, I was still able to conduct some historical research on key questions about this shipwreck. As Albert Einstein used to say: “during moments of crisis, only imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Koldo Trápaga Monchet is currently carrying out his research at the Instituto de Arqueologia y Paleociências at Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Chopping up shipwrecks: The science of the saw

By Sara Rich

Contrary to popular opinion, underwater archaeology isn't about gold. It isn't always about amphorae, anchors, bells, or even those brave sailors who succumbed to Davy Jones' locker. Sometimes, it's just about the ship.

In the period known as the Age of Discovery (16th-18th c.), ships were floating forests, composed of wood from thousands of trees. So to study those ship timbers is to study regional and international forest resources, local and long-distance timber trade, the art of training trees to form specific ship elements, and the science of shipbuilding. These fascinating and nuanced aspects of sylvan commerce and construction have helped articulate the globe as we know it today. Essential to this study, undertaken by the ForSEAdiscovery project in a pioneering effort, is dendroprovenance. This term, from the Greek dendros, 'tree', + provenance, refers to several scientific methods developed to determine where the parent tree of a given timber was growing when it was felled.

ForSEAdiscovery is a multi-tiered Marie-Curie Actions project with research areas including GIS, databases, historical cartography, history, dendroprovenance, and maritime archaeology. Research conducted by a team of international scholars in these diverse areas is geared toward answering questions about networks of timber trade, Iberian forestry, the nature of Iberian shipbuilding, and more. While the project historians are tracking down elusive data in archives around Europe, the team's nautical archaeologists are working this field season (June 2015) on three shipwrecks off the coast of Galicia in northern Spain: the corvette Bayonnaise (18th c.) in Fisterra, the frigate La Magdalena (18th c.) in Viveiro, and the galleon (16th or 17th c.) in Ribadeo. Wood from these (and other) shipwrecks will be provided to partner laboratories, whose fellows will furnish the first round of dendroprovenance data.

Of course, in order to perform these laboratory analyses on wood from shipwrecks, samples must be taken from actual ship timbers. Underwater. Using saws, chainsaws, and sheer elbow grease.

These well-preserved pine planks from the shipwreck of La Magdalena are in amazingly good condition for having been submerged since her tragic wrecking event in 1810. But the better the preservation -- and we want high levels of preservation -- the harder it is to cut. This plank took two divers, Sara Rich (above) and Adolfo Martins (photographer), roughly 25 minutes (and about 300 BAR of compressed air) to saw through.

Other samples don't require such effort, even though they represent enormous oak frames from shipwrecks like the Bayonnaise.

Although riddled with holes made by the archaeologist's arch-nemesis, Teredo navalis, this sample is actually invaluable -- not in gold doubloons, but in the currency of scientific data. If you look carefully at the top of the larger piece, you can see the innermost annual growth rings of the tree that this sample was cut from. These rings, and various other anatomical elements of this wood, can provide that provenance information we are seeking in this project.

Whether the wood making up this ship came from the Baltic, the Netherlands, the Americas, or right here in Iberia, the research fellows with ForSEAdiscovery will find it out and keep you posted on our progress ... and our underwater adventures too.

Sara Rich works with old wood from submerged landscapes and shipwrecks at Maritime Archaeology Trust / Maritime Archaeology Ltd. in Southampton, UK.