Spanish Pottery from the Tortugas Shipwreck, 1622

Oceans Odyssey 4Oceans Odyssey 4 presents a major collection of olive jars, tablewares, cooking vessels and tobacco pipes excavated from the Tortugas shipwreck at a depth of 405 meters in the Straits of Florida. The Spanish ship’s Seville dominated pottery dated to 1622 is an index of unchanged cultural tastes and production at the end of Spain’s Golden Age. For cooking the crew relied on Afro-Caribbean colonoware, possible evidence of maritime slavery in the Americas fleets. Tin-glazed plates painted with the papal coat of arms may have served Spanish clergymen from the newly formed Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith. The Andalusian olive jars are compared to Roman Baetican amphoras as microcosms of distinct economics. Samples of all ceramics were subjected to Inductively-Coupled Plasma Spectrometry (ICPS) to assess vessel origins.

Greg Stemm, Sean Kingsley & Ellen Gerth (eds.), Oceans Odyssey 4. Pottery from the Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2014).

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Golden Grapes and Ghosts of Chesil Beach

“It was a presence – an imaginary shape or essence from the human multitude lying below: those who had gone down in vessels of war, East Indiamen, barges, brigs, and ships of the Armada…”

 Thomas Hardy, The Well-Beloved (1897). 


Treasure of the Golden Grape Peering down onto Chesil Beach from the heights of Portland Bill, the imagination takes flights of fantasy. Can there be a more striking maritime landscape in all of Britain? The romantic inspiration for realms of poetry and prose, far less known is this famous Dorset landmark’s infamy as a sprawling ships’ graveyard.

Chesil Beach is a natural trap for flotsam and jetsam, and was grimly renowned for the shipwrecked bodies washed up onto its shore. Thomas Hardy called these waters Deadman’s Bay. The Dead House where bodies were laid to rest still stands at the back of Chesil Cove.

Around 200 vessels from all nations met their fate along this 18-mile bank of pebbles running westwards from Portland to Burton Cliffs. In July 1588 a captured Armada ship, the San Salvador, sank here, as allegedly did the Isobel privateer alongside 20 other ships in a single storm on Christmas Day 1600.

A Golden Fleece in 1706, a Charming Molly in 1754 and endless other ships grounded on the ever-shifting pebbles into the 20th century, spilling onto the beach and the open arms of local wreckers their cargoes of tobacco, copper, tin, raisins, salt, wine, slate, timber, cloth, wool, sugar and shale.

While the sailing world converged on the Portland Harbour Olympic venue in summer 2012 a few paces east of Chesil across the beach, the ink had just dried on Selwyn Williams’ book describing one of the most colourful and important ships ever to meet its maker in these waters. Hardly surprising for someone born overlooking Chesil Beach to a merchant seaman father, Selwyn’s Treasure of the Golden Grape (Deadman’s Bay Publishing, Dorchester, 2012) is clearly a labour of love. Thanks to the Dutch ship’s cargo of gold and silver, and the quite remarkable furore that swirled around its salvage over four days from 11 December 1641, this book provides a rare insight into the world of Spanish contraband trade and the lengths local wreckers went to in order to profit from misadventure – a moment in time linking two of the most evocative themes in maritime history.

chesil-beach4The 16-man Golden Grape owned by four Dutch partners, Wesseilhen Norman, Derrick and Henrick Doomers, and Derrick Peters Redhoost, had sailed from Texel to Dover half laden with general goods ranging from pepper to cordage and ships’ rigging blocks. There the hold was topped up with tallow, more pepper, cordage, blocks and parcels of copper. Four more sailors joined the crew under the command of a new captain, Captain Thomas Redwood, for the final outward voyage to Cadiz. At war with Spain since 1621, the Dutch ship could now masquerade as an English merchant venture and sidestep the Iberian trade blockade.

In Spain everything other than the pepper was offloaded, while Spanish and Flemish merchants swiftly filled the Golden Grape with 1,019 barrels of raisins, 396 oil jars for merchants of Le Havre in France and two bags of red wool. Another merchant shipped 234 barrels of raisins for Dover merchants, while a third added a consignment of 12 butts of sherry, eight for merchants of Rouen. Gunner Robert Coast took three pipes of tent (red wine) for his own purposes.

So far so good – and above board. But soon out of Cadiz the Golden Grape swerved towards Sanlucar de Barremada, the satellite harbour of Seville, which itself was the homeport of the hugely lucrative American treasure fleet. In exchange for its 200 barrels of pepper, the Golden Grape eagerly received two bags of red wool, 43 bolts of taffeta, two bags of silver plate, a bag filled with 500 gold pistoles (Spanish 2 escudos coins), another bag stuffed with a mixture of pistoles and pieces of eight, and finally a peg and loaf of silver. Having lifted anchor the Dutch fluit was gingerly making its way back up the English Channel towards Le Havre when it grounded on Chesil Beach during a fierce gale on 11 December 1641. Seven of the crew drowned.

181001_431372036944504_343532246_nWord of a treasure ship in peril on the pebble beach spread like wildfire. In 1641 a list of South Dorset villages shows that just 147 men aged over 18 lived in Portland, and the majority seem to have had a finger in the Golden Grape pie. As Selwyn Williams explains from the quite extraordinarily detailed proceedings of the High Court of the Admiralty Enquiry held at Melcombe Regis in the Borough of Weymouth between 10 January and 28 March 1642 (all transcribed at the end of his book), 343 witnesses gave depositions to the Court and mentioned another 204 people involved in the scandal. No less than 301 of the witnesses, it turned out, had been on the beach at some time during the four days after the ship grounded – over twice the population of Portland.

By the time of the Admiralty Enquiry, a collective amnesia had struck Dorset. But under oath, memories slowly emerged. Arthur Grey, an innkeeper at Wyke Regis, had brought the survivors of the Golden Grape to safety and warmth. However, as his wife, Susannah Grey, testified, at night she removed the bags of treasure from a chest next to the master’s bed and handed them to her husband, who hid them in a place that she could not recall.

Back down on the shore, the steersman Cornelius Van Berkham and the boatswain’s mate recovered more gold pistoles in his hat, persuaded the gunner Robert Coast to pocket them and with a wink said “keep these and we will divide them between us”. Yet more gold and silver exchanged hands on multiple occasions in a game of layered concealment that created a climate of deniability.

A single young woman called Mary Paine of Melcombe Regis, for instance, ended up with a bag of gold and silver. Thomas Hunt and Thomas Bayly of Wyke Regis salvaged six barrels of raisins and 26 jars of oil. The list of tradesmen who just happened to find themselves on the beach in the days after the grounding of the Golden Grape surpassed the proverbial butcher, the baker and candlestick maker to include a shoemaker, fisherman, sailors, husbandmen, yeomen, masons, a carpenter, a brewer, a thatcher, a weaver, a tailor and a baker.

As Selwyn Williams’s sleuthing through obscure sources has demonstrated, it transpires that some booty ended up as far as 7 miles away at Abbotsbury. Some 172 of the ship’s 400 oil jars were salvaged as well as 535 of the 1,253 barrels of raisins. But before the wreckers could clear the hold it would seem that the greatest part of the cargo was lost when the ship broke up.

Ring_27172cNot content with tracking down the precise spot where the Golden Grape was lost in 1641 opposite Little Bridge Farm, Selwyn also quantifies the salvaged goods taken by village and location. While diving for crab and lobsters off Chesil Beach in 1980, however, following another huge storm that completely eroded the seabed of pebbles, Selwyn linked past and present. At a depth of 15 metres, 100 metres offshore, a 20 metre-wide strip of underlying clay was exposed for at least a mile. For the first time diving these waters in 15 years, anchors were naturally exposed next to the side of an iron ship, a P40 fighter plane wreck lying upside down, and a 6-inch wide silver plate probably lost with the Golden Grape.

Since then Selwyn has been hot on the trail of this Dutch ship, following up chance finds and dead ends. In 1827, during what accounts describe as a “great convulsion of a violent gale of wind from the West”, a large volume of gold and silver bars, silver bowls and spoons came to light. Later reports described how in 1848 a poor man found a large 60-ounce piece of silver on Portland Beach. Down the decades silver sporadically washed up on Chesil Beach, including a 37-ounce, 5-inch diameter solid silver ‘pebble’ picked up and sold at Duke’s Auction Rooms in Dorchester that was probably silver smuggled on the Golden Grape. In a twist in local legend, it is said that a duck shooter found it on the beach, which inspired the name Duckey Stone for the ship’s treasures. Seine fishermen also told Selwyn about “brass bars with funny marks” that had been picked up on the beach. A Spanish lustreware plate from Valencia and other ceramic bowls in private collections all probably come from the lost Dutch fluit.

Following the contemporary salvage of 1641 and the hunt for silver Duckey Stones over the course of 372 years, you could be forgiven for mistaking the story of the wreck of the Golden Grape as dead and buried. However, in many ways it has just begun. Surely sherds from the indestructible 228 olive jars not salvaged or the two anchors, seven pieces of ordnance, two chambers and eight murderer cannon – if jettisoned – might have left an archaeological footprint somewhere under these inhospitable waters.

gg2104Last seen, Selwyn Williams and his team from The Shipwreck Project were hot on the trail of the Golden Grape’s hull using side-scan sonar. Numerous intriguing targets need following up, as do a whole host of archaeological finds including Roman coins and a Dressel 20 Baetican amphora neck. Meanwhile, Selwyn has produced a carefully researched labour of love that brings back to life one of the most exciting moment’s in Chesil Beach’s life – a physical reality of Dorset that goes far beyond the imagination of poets and novelists.

If you lie on Chesil Beach today with your ear towards the sea, you might just hear the echo of the 200 wrecks lost in these waters churning beneath billions of pebbles. But as Selwyn Williams makes clear, the Golden Grape is not just the backstory of local Dorset wreckers, the real world of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, but of an even greater scandal: ingenious attempts by Spanish merchants to hide the gold and silver of the Americas, incoming to Seville, from the hands of the king and to profit from his loss.

Before reaching the Casa de Contratación in the capital city of Andalucia, a complex web of ships and wheeler-dealer merchants spirited the king’s gold out of State hands. Ultimately, the Golden Grape is the little known memory of the archaeological world of Spanish contraband trade and the riches that spirited entrepreneurs could make from general goods if they could avoid the pitfalls of privateers and the wrath of God.

The Treasure of the Golden Grape is not the end, it is perhaps the beginning. Somewhere out there lie the physical remains of a fabulous tale that not even Hollywood could make up. Don’t bet against Selwyn Williams and his team turning up archaeological gold.


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Black Rats & Spanish Pearls: The Tortugas Shipwreck, History’s First Deep-Sea Excavation

Port of Seville c. 1590 by Alonso Sanchez Coello

Port of Seville c. 1590 by Alonso Sanchez Coello

After 1,489 hours of robotic diving and 20 years of research, the results of the world’s first ever deep-sea excavation have docked with the publication of Oceans Odyssey 3. The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2013).

The Tortugas wreck was found by Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology of Tampa, Florida, in 1989 at a depth of 405m in the Straits of Florida, south of the Dry Tortugas, the southernmost islands of the Florida Keys. Too deep for divers, the exact positions of 16,903 artefacts were recorded and all recovered by the Remotely-Operated Vehicle Merlin, custom-built for the project.

Tortugas Wreck - ROV Merlin

Tortugas Wreck – ROV Merlin. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

These ground-breaking operations ushered in the birth of a new discipline, deep-sea shipwreck archaeology, for which the core tools of the trade were fine-tuned to enable accurate surveying using a Sonardyne acoustic long baseline positioning system, stratigraphic excavation using a customised suction dredge with integrated sediment removal and filtration (SeRF) system (prototyped from a beer keg), heavy duty lifting with two advanced Schilling manipulators, and delicate artefact recovery based on a limpet suction device innovation. All underwater activities were fully documented by video camera and three still photography cameras.

Limpet suction device recovers an olive jar

Limpet suction device recovers an olive jar. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

The lost ship has been identified as the Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a 117-ton Portuguese-built and Spanish-operated navio owned by Juan de la Torre Ayala. Sailing with the infamous 1622 Tierra Firme fleet returning home to Seville, the Buen Jesús plummeted into the deep 20km offshore in the ferocious hurricane of 5 October that consumed eight ships, including the Atocha and Margarita, sweeping their remains across more than 80km of the Florida Keys. Around 550 people, including 121 priests, drowned. The gold, silver, pearls, indigo, cochineal, tobacco and other products lost on all eight ships were valued at 4,000,000 pesos. The fleet’s loss was a fatal blow for debt-consumed Madrid, suffering 300% inflation since the turn of the 17th century, and its fading Golden Age.

Monitoring ROV work, Tortugas wreck

Monitoring ROV work, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Unlike the rest of the fleet, journey’s end for the Tortugas ship was Nueva Cordoba (Cumana) on the Costa de las Perlas in modern Venezuela. A daredevil itinerary took the Buen Jesús to the edge of the Spanish colonies, waters teeming with Dutch and English privateers, for three reasons: pearls, possibly contraband, tobacco and as a sign of Spanish colonial power over the Peal Coast, which had become heavily eroded by the early 17th-century by the Dutch assault on the region’s abundant salt reserves.

As a small merchant vessel operating at the opposite spectrum to the great Tierra Firme treasure ships the Atocha and Margarita celebrated off the Florida Keys, the Tortugas shipwreck ultimately provides a rare window into the everyday world of colonial Spain’s trade with the New World at the end of its Golden Age.

4-Plex with artefacts safely recovered from 405m deep. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

4-Plex with artefacts safely recovered from 405m deep. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

While the 39 gold bars and 1,184 silver coins represent in part profits from the outwards-shipped sale along the Pearl Coast of wine, olives, hazelnuts, iron goods, women’s shoes and a tapestry depicting the Souls of Purgatory, the 6,639 pearls harvested from the Pinctada imbricate oyster beds are split symbols of luxury and brutality. At the one extreme pearls were Europe’s hottest fashion accessory. Symbolising purity, integrity and wisdom, Venezuelan gems like those shipped on the Buen Jesús featured in resplendent paintings of the period, such as the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1588, by George Gower) and were coveted by King Philip II, Queen Margarita and Lucrezia Borgia alike. Venezueala’s pearls were fished from the seas under extremely harsh conditions for man and nature: 60,000 divers from the Bahamas, followed by tens of thousands of imported African slaves, were wiped out in what is considered to be the earliest recorded example by Europeans of species overkill causing ecological collapse.

Pottery, astrolabes & gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Pottery, astrolabes & gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

At the other end of the spectrum, the Tortugas wreck turned up evidence of an industrious crewman, who idled away the hours cutting lice combs and cases from the shells of hawksbill turtles, Eretmochelys imbricate. A well-appointed shipboard merchant owned an onyx inkwell and an octagonal ivory sundial made in Nuremberg, useless for telling the time in either Seville or the Americas but a sign of high fashion. Most curious of all are two greenstone whetsones and a greenstone labret (tribal lip ornament) that hint at the presence of a Native Indian woman accompanying the ill-fated Tortugas ship. Whether as a slave or dependent is uncertain.

Pearls, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Pearls, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Finally, as Mother Nature united well-heeled merchants and slaves in tragedy, the analysis of the animal bones shows that rats ran amock beneath the feet of the ship’s cat, who licked his lips at caged blue-headed parrots. Bones from the latter are the first archaeological evidence from any shipwreck worldwide of the transport of precious birds to Spain from central and northern South America.

Blue-on-blue Seville tablewares, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Blue-on-blue Seville tablewares, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

In an ideal world, perhaps submerged resources like these could rest untouched in the deep from the ravages of man. Idealism is a luxury that science can ill afford. Rumours about the discovery of a ‘Spanish galleon’ off the Tortugas Islands came to light in 1965, when the fishing-boat Trade Winds, trawling for shrimp, snagged its nets and pulled up three intact Spanish olive jars, metal artefacts, and pieces of ship’s rigging and wood. Numerous internationally important Spanish wrecks have been found through the same fishing impacts off Florida, Louisiana and Texas since the lucrative ‘Pink Gold’ shrimp grounds were discovered in the 1960s – with Key West at its epicentre.

Gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

The pioneering work of Greg Stemm, John Astley, John Morris and Dave Moore on the Tortugas shipwreck using nascent computer coding, deep-sea technology, creativity and a can-do mentality that seems to be vanishing today represents an exciting moment in the history of marine exploration.

We hope that the publication of the first of two volumes on this shipwreck, saved from trawlers hunting pink shrimp, demonstrates the potential and necessity of deep-sea projects to save key sites from harm’s way and is a matter to be celebrated.

*** Meanwhile, Wreck Watch Int. would like to hear from anyone who can suggest parallels to the Tortugas artefacts from archaeological sites and wrecks in Spain, especially for the ceramic tablewares, which were largely manufactured in Triana, Seville.

  • The Tortugas Shipwreck collection is curated by Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, who have made key artefacts publicly available through its Virtual Museum.
  • A popular article on the Tortugas shipwreck, ‘Black Rats & Spanish Pearls Shipwrecked off the Florida Keys’ is published in the February/March 2013 issue of Current World Archaeology.
  • A preliminary scientific study of the ceramics from the Tortugas shipwreck is published in the 2012 issue of Ceramics In America, kindly made publicly available by the Chipstone Foundation.

Oceans Odyssey 3. The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet, edited by Greg Stemm & Sean Kingsley, is available from Oxbow Books in the UK and USA.

Oceans Odyssey 3

Oceans Odyssey 3

Odyssey Virtual Museum

Odyssey Virtual Museum

Current World Archaeology, February/March 2013

Current World Archaeology, February/March 2013

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Cultural Resource Management

For those interested in the myriad meanings of Cultural Resource Management, Tom King’s A Companion to Cultural Resource Management (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) has several articles of interest:

• Historic Watercraft: Keeping Them Afloat – Susan B.M. Langley

Challenges of Maritime Archaeology: In Too Deep – Sean Kingsley

• A Future for Cultural Resource Management? – Thomas F. King

For those ‘letter of the law’ readers enamoured by all things ‘sovereign immune’, since related legislation snags historic shipwrecks under a category that inexplicably includes airplanes and spaceships, of related interest may be:

• Historic Aircraft and Spacecraft: Enfants Terrible – Ric Gillespie

ISBN: 978-1-4051-9873-8, Hardcover, 600 pages, April 2011, Wiley-Blackwell

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