A shipwreck discovered off the coast of Oman is believed to be from the fleet of famed explorer Vasco da Gama.
Vasco da Gama was a major player during during Europe's Golden Age of Discovery. The time period, which lasted from the mid-15th century until the 17th century, was driven by the lure of India's spice market. Vasco da Gama is the explorer that opened up the trade route to India, or Carreira da India. The wreckage is believed to be the oldest discovered from this period in history.
The shipwreck was initially discovered in 1998, but was not excavated until between 2013 and 2015. The Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture collaborated with the shipwreck recovery company Bluewater Recoveries Ltd. and their director David Mearns. The project also received support from the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council.
Explorers uncovered thousands of relics from the site. Based on the close examination of the artifacts, scientists feel that the wreck is most likely that of the Esmeralda. National Geographic briefly outlines the story of the Esmeralda:
"In 1502 the king of Portugal, Dom Manuel I (r. 1495-1521) reappointed da Gama as Captain-Major of the fourth Portuguese expedition to India, with a fleet of 20 ships armed with heavy guns to subdue hostile Muslim merchants. Da Gama returned from India to Lisbon in 1503, leaving behind a five-ship squadron led by his uncle Vincente Sodré to protect Portuguese factories along the southwest coast of India. Instead, Vincente Sodré in the Esmeralda, his brother Brás in the São Pedro, and the rest of the squadron sailed to the Gulf of Aden between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, where the Sodré brothers seized and looted Arab ships".
The process of examining the 2,800 artifacts is ongoing, but the discoveries to date provide compelling evidence of the ship's probable identity. A CT scan of a bell revealed the numbers "498" and the letter "M". It is believed that the numbers represent the date of 1498, which is appropriate for a ship that left port in Lisbon in 1502. Additionally, documents show that the ships seized by the Sodré brothers were salvaged and the hulls burned. This explains the wreck's missing cannons and the lack of wooden remains. Stone cannonballs were found that have the initials "VS" carved into them. Vincente Sodré was da Gama's uncle and commander of the Esmeralda. An extremely rare coin was also found. The coin is one minted by the Portuguese specifically for trade with India. Only one other such coin is known to exist.
The process of finding the resting place of the Esmeralda and then conducting the salvage operation was no easy task. It took the team six months of searching through archives to find the possible location. Once they discovered the wreck, David Mearns and his team had to battle tough conditions in the water. Mearns recalled the experiences on Al Hallaniyah island in an interview with National Geographic:
"Our team stood on top of the island and watched the waves come in, and put themselves in the place of the Portuguese, where they would have anchored and where the storm would dash them along the coastline," ...Then they snorkeled around and in 20 minutes started seeing cannonballs that were obviously from a European ship."
Many of the artifacts were buried deep in the sand, pushed there by high-energy wave bursts. The crew nicknamed the site "the washing machine". They set up one meter square grids and systematically unearthed the treasures left by the ship.
Once the artifacts have been preserved and studied they will be put on display in the National Museum in Oman.