A shipwreck off the coast of Oman has been identified as a member of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama’s famous fleet, making it the oldest known wreck from Europe’s golden age of exploration. The archaeological discovery has yielded amazing artifacts, including an “Indio” coin. There are now only two such coins known to still exist.
When people think of great explorers, names like Francis Drake, James Cook, and Ferdinand Magellan quickly come to mind. But before all of them, there was Vasco de Gama, and that makes the shipwreck a fascinating discovery for archaeologists.
Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture announced Tuesday that the shipwreck was most likely the Esmeralda, which would mean it was one of the vessels on Vasco de Gama’s second journey to India (1502-1503), according to National Geographic. That would put the ship at the very beginning of the golden age of exploration, when European kingdoms were seeking out trade routes to Asia.
Vasco de Gama successfully found a trade route to India in 1498 (pictured above), after Christopher Columbus failed miserably in 1492. King Dom Manuel I of Portugal gave a fleet of 20 ships armed with cannons to the explorer for a second round.
The route to India was perilous; roughly 20 percent of vessels trying to make the voyage from 1498 to 1650 were lost along the way. The Esmeralda was one of that 20 percent.
According to the Huffington Post, the English company Blue Water Recoveries discovered the shipwreck in 1998, on the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, but the Omani Ministry of Heritage and Culture didn’t begin archaeological work until 2013. So far, the site has yielded about 2,800 artifacts, including cannonballs, ceramics, firearms, and rare coins.
The shipwreck site is remote, off a sparsely populated island that sits about 28 miles from the main coast. That protected it from looters, according to Blue Water Recoveries Director David Mearns, and allowed the Esmeralda to keep so many of its treasures.
One object of particular interest is a bell, now believed to be the oldest ship bell ever recovered. It stayed hidden under a boulder for over 500 years.
Still, the most valuable object in the shipwreck might be the Indio coin.
Mearns reportedly told the AP, “That was an amazing discovery. It was like a thing you read about in a Hollywood story.”
It’s the second Indio coin ever discovered (a video showing its discovery is posted below). According to a ministry press release, the rare silver coin was issued by the Portuguese King specifically to trade with India. It’s sometimes called the “ghost coin of Dom Manuel” because of its incredible rarity.
According to the press release, other key artifacts include “an important copper-alloy disc marked with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and an esfera armilar (armillary sphere), which was the personal emblem of King Dom Manuel I.”
There were also a number of Cruzado gold coins that were minted in Lisbon between the years 1495 and 1501. But still, the bulk of the items were artillery and ordnance, designed to fight off middle eastern merchants.
Careful analysis of the artifacts led to the conclusion that the shipwreck is from Vasco de Gama’s fleet.
More pictures of the site are available on the website esmeraldashipwreck.com.
An academic paper on the Esmeralda shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s fleet was published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
[Image via Roque Gameiro/Wikimedia Commons]