/ 22 September 2008

Scientists study 16th-century shipwreck in Namibia

A treasure-laden 16th-century Portuguese vessel that ran aground off Namibia's Atlantic coast was hailed on Monday by archaeologists.

A treasure-laden 16th-century Portuguese vessel that ran aground off Namibia’s Atlantic coast was hailed on Monday by archaeologists as providing a rare insight into the heyday of seafaring explorations between Europe and the Orient.

”This is a cultural treasure of immense importance,” Bruno Werz told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) when offering journalists a first glimpse of the precious find at the excavation site in Namibia’s diamond-rich ”sperrgebiet”, or no-go zone.

The shipwreck, which was discovered by geologists dredging the seabed for diamonds in April and was covered in sand on Monday for preservation purposes, is believed to be the oldest yet found in sub-Saharan Africa.

Werz is leading a team of archaeologists and geologists from Namibia, the United States, Portugal, South Africa and Zimbabwe in excavating the ship.

Speculation had been rife that the vessel could be linked to Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz, the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope in the year 1488.

But that theory was put to bed by the archaeologists, who revealed that some of the about 2 000 gold coins discovered at the site were dated October 1525, 25 years after Diaz disappeared.

A Portuguese archaeologist described the wreck as the best-preserved example of Portuguese seafaring efforts found outside Portugal. He attributed its good condition to its long burial in sand, which preserves wood.

Apart from the gold, the ship’s rich bounty includes 1,4kg of silver coins, copper ingots, cannons and navigational instruments.

A trident indented on the ingots shows them to have been supplied by German merchant house Jakob Fugger — a known supplier of ingots to the Portuguese crown in the era of the Habsburg dynasty.

The shipwreck is located near Oranjemund, about 160km south of the town of Luderitz, site of a small diamond mine.

With state diamond mining company Namdeb spending vast amounts of money on keeping the sea at bay while the excavations are taking place, pressure is on the team to wrap up the work by early October.

The coins, which are now the property of the Namibian government, have already been spirited away for safe-keeping. The wood is destined in the short-term for the US, where it will be preserved. — Sapa-dpa