Archaeologists have discovered a shipwreck off the coast of Oman that was part of a fleet led by 16th-century Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama during his second voyage to India.
Lying in Omani waters, the wreck site was identified as possibly belonging to the ship Esmeralda. It is the oldest shipwreck from Europe's age of exploration ever to be found, Oman's Ministry of Heritage and Culture said on Tuesday.
The wreck was first discovered in 1998, on the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama's epic discovery of the direct sea route to India, after an extensive search in the Portuguese archives.
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David Mearns, of the recovery company Bluewater Recoveries Ltd, identified the wreck site off the coast of the remote Al Hallaniyah Island, some 28 miles from mainland Oman.
"The bay where the site is located was almost a perfect geographical match for where the ship wrecked, according to the descriptions of the chroniclers," Mearns said.
The site wasn't explored until 2013 when a two-year excavation, led by Mearns in partnership with Oman's Ministry of Heritage and Culture, took place in the island's waters.
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No hull timbers or large ship structures were found on the seabed, but archaeologists recovered more than 2,800 artifacts that helped in the identification of the wreck site.
Along with another ship, São Pedro, Esmeralda was the leading vessel of a five-ship squadron left behind by Da Gama when he returned from India to Lisbon in 1503.
The vessels were commanded by da Gama's maternal uncles, Vicente and Brás Sodré, respectively. They were supposed to patrol the waters off the southwest Indian coast and protect the newly established Portuguese factories. Instead, they sailed to the Gulf of Aden between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, where they looted Arab ships, sparing no lives and burning every ship after their plunder.
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In May 1503, the squadron was anchored at Al Hallaniyah island. Local fishermen warned the Portuguese that a dangerous storm was approaching. Confidant that their iron anchors were strong enough, the Sodré brothers ignored the warning, while the smaller vessels of the fleet moved to a safe location on the other side of the island.
When the winds came, the São Pedro and the Esmeralda were torn from their moorings and smashed against the rocky shoreline.
"While most men on the São Pedro survived by scrambling across the fallen mast and rigging on to land, it was reported that everyone from the Esmeralda, including the squadron commander Vicente Sodré, perished in the deeper waters of the bay," Mearns wrote in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
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Among the key artifacts recovered from the wreck site are a copper-alloy disc marked with the Portuguese royal coat of arms, a bronze bell carrying the inscription "498″ that suggests the ship was built in 1498, gold coins minted in Lisbon between 1495 and 1501, and an extraordinarily rare silver coin, called the Indio, commissioned in 1499 specifically for trade with India.
"The extreme rarity of the silver Indio, as only the second known specimen in the world, and the fact it was used specifically for Portuguese trade in India, is by itself a strong indicator of the ship's nationality," Mearns wrote.
He noted there is a clear geographical correlation between the site and the historical record of the loss of the ships commanded by the Sodré brothers.
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"It is difficult to believe that the site can be anything but the wreck of either the São Pedro or Esmeralda," Mearns wrote.
Although the historical record suggests the wreckage is that of the Esmeralda and not the São Pedro, the researchers admit conclusive proof is still missing.
One important clue however comes from 35 stone cannon balls engraved with the letters "VS," which likely represent the initials of Vincente Sodré, the commander of the Esmeralda.