Geneaology and Archaeology of Portuguese Ships at the Dawning of the Modern World    

by Francisco Alves

To speak of "Oceans, A Heritage for the Future" was the pretence for raising the corner of a veil that had been hiding a ship from India. Although originally hidden, in 1997 it began to gain a face and a name — crowning a project begun in 1996 under the auspices of the Commission of the Pavilion of Portugal for EXPO '98 and the Ministry of Culture.

Fig 1. View of the frame in the area of the stern from the wreckage of the 15th-century ship Ria de Aveiro A. Photo: Miguel Aleluia

A project that had as a backdrop, the problem of a nau that had presumably been wrecked at the very beginning of the 17th century. Its simple wreckage, 10 meters deep on the Lisbon sandbar, recalls a terrible maritime tragedy and documents one of the most significant parts of the largest Portuguese ships known and archaeologically documented of this era.

Inasmuch as this deals with an emotional topic, it is appropriate to first establish a preliminary setting, albeit very briefly, about ships, navigation and about some persistent myths and the realities circulating about the Portuguese ships and the lberian-Atlantic tradition1 of naval construction at the dawning of the modern world.

This is a very current problem thanks to the recent discovery in Portugal of an aggregate of ship wreckage from the 14th and 15th centuries, that has been completed with the identification and the preliminary study of the remains possibly belonging to the nau Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, wrecked in 1606 against the rocks of São Julião da Barra on its return from Cochin.

At this ending of a millennium, the history of the Portuguese ships of the era of discoveries and expansion is a subject that is still quite remarkable — as much for the myths and the errors inherent in the image that until not long ago the Portuguese fabricated about themselves in this area and in their deeds. In addition, there was a complete lack of factual (archaeological) evidence that had come down to us from then, saved by some miracle from the encroachment of the depths of the sea or from penetrations from the riverside area. Added to this, because of its recent character, is the initial disclosure of the discoveries in the area of nautical archaeology that have taken place in the last decades throughout the world, and especially, in Portugal in recent years.

To this discipline, rejuvenated by four decades of underwater exploration, is owed the gradual acquisition of factual evidence that began to shed some light on a subject, until then exclusively appurtenant to written or pictorial documentation, sometimes of exceptional quality, but always rare and deficient.

However, before proceeding with the topic, a summary of the facts that disprove some of the major myths about the ships and navigation in general and, in particular, with respect to those about the Portuguese.

Therefore, before continuing, it should be underlined that navigating the ocean by sail had been a routine practice from Antiquity, no significant hiatus being noted in this practice dating back many millennia. One of the high points of this navigation in the European Atlantic dates back to the end of the Bronze Age, corresponding to the beginnings of the first millennium before the current Era.

As a matter of fact, these ships of three thousand years ago were not necessarily small. The two enormous lead anchor stocks dating from the 5th-4th century BC, recovered in the waters of Berlenga island off the west coast of Portugal, belonged to anchors of a ship that had to be of great tonnage (Alves, 1993; Alves et al., 1993), presumably comparable to those cargo ships "of ten thousand amphorae" that some centuries later Strabo described could easily enter the broad estuary of the Tagus river (Geografia, III, 3, 1).

Fig 2. The memory of the maritime adventure has endured in myths that have accompanied the entire history of humanity. Here is the ship of Ulysses from the scene "Ulysses and the Sirens" in the ODYSSEY, It is a naïve and provincial portrayal in the mosaic of the FRIGIDARIUM of the baths of the Luso-Roman villa of Santa Vitória do Ameixial (Mon forte), dating from the 3rd century AD, Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arqueologia. Photo: ANF

In recent decades nautical and underwater archaeology have, in their turn, demonstrated the lack of a basis for the persistent 20th-century myth according to which the ships of Antiquity could not sail close to the wind, that is, to recover the wind, nor dispense with the presence of a central helm on the sternpost for this purpose, an innovation that was only introduced in Atlantic Europe at the end of the 12th century. This is demonstrated by the oldest pictorial documentation illustrating this detail, the low relief on the baptismal font in Winchester cathedral dating from 1180 (Landström, 1961, p. 69).

The numerous examples of ships from the Classical Period discovered in recent decades have justifiably proved the contrary. As a matter of fact, since the use of lateral helms was not considered a restriction for major sailing navigation, the architectural study of the construction details of the ancient ships proved that these could effectively sail close to the wind given the nature of the lower part of the hull. These findings effectively demonstrated that such hull bottoms possessed characteristics that completely prepared them for the operation of the "drift plane" necessary to recover the wind, to which is combined the fact of having square sails with great versatility. This is sufficient in order to be a basis for a concise conclusion — taken following from the study of the wreckage of the Madrague de Giens, an enormous cargo ship from the 1st century BC, discovered near Toulon — that a ship with such characteristics could maintain a cruise, and even peak, speed "[...] that would still be considered exceptional at the beginning of the 19th century and would continue to be up to the appearance of the great clippers in the middle of the 19th century. [...]" (Pomey, 1982, p. 154).

Therefore, from the point of view of the History of Technology, confronted with such structural characteristics, as well as the intense and uninterrupted tradition of Atlantic and Mediterranean navigation, the lesser merit of the sailing ships of Antiquity cannot be justified relative to later periods.

On the other hand, if the nautical remains from Antiquity along the Atlantic band of the Iberian Peninsula are rare, those from the period that followed this are even rarer. However, despite not having yet discovered any remains of ships from the Arabic period2 in Atlantic Iberia — contrary to what has occurred in the western Mediterranean in recent decades3 — the myth of the break in the navigation traditions in the western peninsula during the half millennium of Arab domination has been completely surpassed today from the historical point of view.

The ideology of the dominant Christianity was subsequently unaware of this fact, reducing these traditions to the single one of piracy and the periodic campaigns of the Saracen fleets. This ended up being translated into a persistent myth, a conclusion in the most respected sources of high-Medieval Portuguese history studies (Sampaio, undated, vol. II), in which the attractive historical hypothesis, but without an archaeological basis, links Genoese influence to the origin of the naval construction tradition of the north-east peninsula (Filgueiras, 1989). A hypothesis that originated in the episode of the Historia Compostellana, when it refers to the initiative of Bishop Gelmirez of Santiago de Compostela to bring specialised personnel from Genoa and Pisa at the beginning of the 12th century for the construction and operation of two war galleys to confront the constant Saracen pillage.

As a matter of fact, the numerous historical sources of Arabic origin that have until recently been neglected by large portions of European culture, and the more modern syntheses about the problem under consideration (Picard, 1997), have unequivocally demonstrated an intense and uninterrupted Arabic tradition in Atlantic navigation, which only declined beginning in the 13th century. This justifies the opinion that the ocean, from al-Andalus to the Maghreb, was an area culturally similar to the Mediterranean until this period (ibid.)4 However, as stated before, this evidence still has to be proved archaeologically, as well as that for the subsequent Christian domination of the Peninsula, lacking of course the proof of whether or not there had been a break in the naval construction tradition in this period of political-cultural transition. The most prominent aspect is certainly that of the relationship with Mediterranean Europe being reinforced.

Fig 3. Caravel from the altarpiece of Santa Auta (considered one of the most faithful representations of this type of ship), first quarter of the 16th century, Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. Photo: ANF

However, it is still a long way to being able to document in the Atlantic part of the Peninsula, in the image that it is starting to be possible to draw in the Mediterranean, the moments of the revolution in nautical technology that mark the disappearance of the exceptional heritage of the Ancient World in this area.

This revolution had a complex origin, resulting from a diverse combination of factors at the start of the Middle Ages and development of the trading society at the end.

With the reservations inherent in all synthetic explanations, it nevertheless seems legitimate to assert that the principles and techniques that became dominant during this period in the planning and construction of ships, resulted basically from economic and socio-professional imperatives and specific techniques. Noteworthy among these are the great pressure for construction accompanying the growth in trade, and a greater simplification, standardisation and economy in procedures and costs. However, they also resulted in an exceptionally relevant manner from an imperative originating from the state of development of military technology — a need to adapt ships to the transport and use of what was initially going to comprise the guarantee for the discoveries and European expansion: artillery.

In this 15th century context, Portuguese navigation "for discovery" was in turn going to provide an ideal field for experimentation. The caravel became a prototypical link for a revolution in the History of the Techniques that would be instituted as a dominant system of construction until the end of the History of sailing navigation and wooden ships.

However, from the point of view of the History of Techniques, from where did this model ship emerge and what did it represent? This ship whose technique of construction was sufficiently revolutionary to expand quickly in the 15th century throughout the entire north Atlantic, spreading the name of its principle/system of construction in different languages (à carvel, carvel building, Kraweelbauweise). What is the reality of the myth and its genealogy?

Fig 4. Monogram of the caravel master João de Lião in a document from 1488 (Mota, 1971), considered a very faithful representation of a caravel, despite the design. Lisbon, Institute dos Arquivos Nacionais/Torre do Tombo. Photo: IAN/TT

Concepts and high points of an archaeology of ships

Fernando Oliveira is one of the most fascinating personalities of the Portuguese Renaissance. A learned cleric, adventurer and teacher, court emissary and mariner, twice imprisoned by the Inquisition, he was author of the Ars Nautica, which is considered today one of the most important works, and the oldest, of learned and conceptual expression in world naval architecture. Dated 1570 and transcribed from Latin to Portuguese by the author a decade later, the Livro da Fábrica das Naus ["Book about the Construction of Naus"] presents the simplest and most enlightened example of that which is the essence of a ship:

"[...] Nature teaches this in the bodies of sentient animals, in which there are also two parts that seem to respond to what / say and give an obvious example of these two necessities of the naus: one is the bones, that represent the strengthening pieces, because they support, straighten and form the body of the animal, such as the support does in the hull of the nau: the other is the skin that covers the bones, as the planking covers the support [...]" (Oliveira, 1991, p. 63).

Predictably, the assumptions of this definition were incorporated into the basic vocabulary of universal naval architecture. This parallelism ended up also being acclaimed in the contemporary reflection about the architectural principles adopted in the construction of ships and vessels, as soon as the human ingenuity began to use many wooden components, particularly those in the form of planks.

As a matter of fact, the design and construction of any ship or vessel made with the aforementioned components is always based on two basic and complementary concepts. These are that of the principle of construction and that of the process and techniques of construction — concepts that emerge in contemporary nautical archaeology as basic theoretical-analytical tools.5

The principle of construction is a concept based on the identification of the element or part of the structure of the ship that performs the definitive, or "active", role in it. Here one of two opposite situations can occurs: either this role is played by the planking, that is the exterior covering of the hull — the "shell" as it is called universally today (the "skin" as Fernando Oliveira says) — or it is taken on by the "skeleton", that is, the framework.

The process of construction, as the name indicates, in turn alludes to the manner of technical construction adopted.

At first sight, the ships of Antiquity in the Mediterranean, with their smooth planking, made of rows placed one on top of the other, the first of which (garboard) beginning in the lateral notches of the keel (the rabbets), do not appear to be different from any other ship with a smooth hull (à franc bord, in French). However, relative to the late- and post-Medieval periods, there is a basic difference in them the planks are attached to each other with the top edges, thanks to a continuous row of joints made by the characteristic, sophisticated "mortise and tenon" system that was predominant in all of the ancient Mediterranean world. This system guarantees a solidity and an adjustment of shapes that has nothing to do with the mere role of a simple covering that belongs to the planking of the hull in the modern construction system. Therefore, the two construction systems differ basically in the principle of construction on which they are based, despite the external appearance being similar at first sight. Likewise, the respective construction processes and techniques are also, in reality, completely different.

Fig 5. Top to top joining between lining planks of a hull by use of the mortise and tenon method typical of the Mediterranean Antiquity (according to Gianfrotta and Pomey, 1981, p. 238).

Fig 6. Fragment of the planking of the hull of one of the ship-palaces of the Emperor Caligula from the lake of Nemi (Italy), con firming the dense and regular use of this type of joining system (ibid., p. 239).

Fig 7. Transverse section of the bottom of the hull from the wreckage of the Madrague de Giens (Toulon), in which this system of joining is observed in the double lining of the hull and the end of the floor-timber not resting on the keel (according to Tchernia, Pomey and Hesnard, 1978, p. 77, ill. 10).

As a matter of fact, in the Ancient Mediterranean, the definitive active principle was precisely guaranteed by the excellent adherence and impermeability of the planking. This was achieved through the aforementioned arduous, very meticulous and technologically sophisticated system of joining. Concurrently, the framework performed only an auxiliary, passive and non-definitive role in the adherence of the structure of the hull, its components being put into place following the assembly of the planking or, often, alternately with it.

However, this Mediterranean construction practice began to decline during the High Middle Ages. It was replaced in the first centuries of this millennium, or even earlier, by another based on the essential, definitive and active role of the skeleton — the framework. According to this practice, that became the predominant one in Europe up to the present time, the planking is made up of pieces independent of each other that are nailed to the floor timbers after these have been erected. This principle was given the name "skeleton first". esqueleto primeiro (in Portuguese), membrane or charpente premiere (in French). In English this was also referred to as carvel built, and in French à carvel, which literally means "constructed in the manner of a caravel". This says it all.

It is important to note that in northern Medieval Europe, the predominant practice is illustrated by the examples of the Viking ships of Scandinavia. With their typical overlapping planking, called clinker (in English) and à clin (in French), where the planks were placed on one another like fish scales or tiles and not placed edge-to-edge. In its own way, this practice expressed the same construction principle as in the Mediterranean of Antiquity based on the "shell first" or "clinker built" (concha primeiro in Portuguese) principle. Interestingly, this principle has endured up to the present day in certain regional practices, specifically in Portugal, certainly due to influences originating in northern European.

Fig 8. Typical construction on the Tagus River according to the "skeleton", or frame, first principle with it representing the dominant and active element of the structure of the ship or boat (Moita, 1990). Photo: Francisco Alves

Fig 9. Construction typical of the Douro River according to the shell first principle in which the frame is placed after the erection of the planking, according to a tradition confirming a distinct North European influence (Furadoura, 1990). Photo: Francisco Alves

The construction practice based on the definitive principle of the "skeleton first" spread throughout the European Atlantic Coast during the first half of the 15th century according to complex and still poorly understood methods, specifically through the Portuguese caravel. However, before approaching the question of its origin, the facts characterising the development that preceded it in the Mediterranean, and that is apparently distinguished by the gradual abandonment of the "shell-first" principle of construction, deserves mention. As a matter of fact, until recently, the wreckage of three ships had been discovered and studied, the Yassi Ada I, the Saint Gervais II and the Serce Liman. The first and the last were in Turkish waters and the second on the French Provençal coast (Fos-sur-Mer). Due to their characteristics they came to represent classical references in contemporary nautical and underwater archaeology in recent decades.6

The first two ships, both dated from the first half of the 7th century AD, despite originating from different ends of the Mediterranean, differentiate through their construction details what appears to comprise two phases in the evolution of the typical principles and processes of naval construction from Antiquity, those that became predominant in the Middle Ages.

In the Yassi Ada I, the decrease in the quantitative and qualitative importance of the components for strengthening the joining of the hull by the mortise and tenon system and the increase in structural importance of the respective skeleton are widely known. This indicates a mixed solution that confirms the decline of the principle and processes of construction typical of Antiquity in the Mediterranean (Bass and Van Doorninck, 1982). Another example of this phase of transition is that of the wreckage of the large ship of Pantano Longarini, in Sicily (Throckmorton and Throckmorton, 1973).

The ship of Saint Gervais II, in turn, can now be considered an example of "proto construction" in "skeleton first". The floor timbers, stronger, more numerous and less regularly spaced, are completely attached to the keel by spikes. The planking of the bottom is completely attached by nailing, only noting on the ends the presence of connections in the ancient manner, but without spikes and with large spaces that show only a "passive function" (Jézégou, 1985a and b).

The ship of Serce Liman, dating from the 11th century, although it still has reminders of the ancient techniques, shows some of the basic characteristics of the "skeleton-first" principle of construction. This permits considering it the most complete and well-documented example of this tradition (Van Doorninck, 1982, and Steffy, 1982).

Very recently, was found the wreckage of a ship (Tantura A) in which the mortise and tenon joining system is completely absent in the lagoon of Tantura, Israel. This ship was dated by radiocarbon to the middle of the 5th century to the middle of the 6th and substantially moved back the beginning of the "skeleton-first" construction tradition (Wachsmann and Kahanov, 1997).

These are, of course, the basic signs of a construction practice that in the following centuries was developed and became predominant from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Until recently, this practice was confirmed archaeologically by an aggregate of around fifteen findings, dating from between the 9th-l0th and 15th centuries, but unfortunately in the majority of cases poorly preserved and documented (Raurich, et al., 1992, p. 30).7

Therefore, just as the wreckage of the ship of Serce Liman represented a reference point for this new "skeleton-first" construction practice in the eastern Mediterranean, the wreckages of the Saracen ships Agay and Batéguier constitute today two important marks for this construction practice in the western Mediterranean, and that quite especially in reference to the possibility of originating in the lberian Peninsula (Jézégou, Joncheray and Joncheray, 1997). These two ships date from the 10th century and were discovered more than two centuries ago at great depths (50 and 60 m) off Saint Raphael and Cannes respectively, however their study only recently recommenced.

As a matter of fact, their origin being confirmed,8 they comprise the first archaeologically documented links of an lberian "skeleton-first" construction tradition, obviously of Mediterranean descent. This has made the hypothesis that the predominance of this tradition was also confirmed in the Atlantic area under Arab domination extremely credible, although still not proved by any archaeological finding. This does not seem remarkable if one considers the influence and the extensive establishment of the techniques of Arabic tradition throughout the Peninsula, an expression of a culture highly developed for the period, principally relative to Science and Technology.

To infer from this a direct relationship in the practice of naval construction on the Portuguese coast — one of the possible places of origin and a point of departure for the Atlantic spread of the à carvel construction practice in the 15th century, that is, according to the principle of "skeleton first" — takes a step that only archaeology will be able or not to document. However, on this level, nautical archaeological evidence is not known prior to 16th century in the north-western Peninsula and, especially, on its Cantabrian shores — whose very ancient naval tradition continued to be exceptionally important throughout the entire lberian Medieval and post-Medieval exploration and expansion phase. In addition, the recent study of the wreckage of the ship of Port Berteau II from the Charente-Maritime in the centre of the French Atlantic coast (Rieth, 1996),9 dated between the 5th and 8th centuries and representing the oldest wreckage of a ship of the river-maritime Atlantic tradition and confirming a "skeleton first" proto-construction,10 initiated the basis for a similar problem, equally puzzling in its origin and development.

Therefore, the supposed Genoese influence in the practice of naval construction in the north-western Peninsula at the beginning of the 12th century mentioned above, makes up only one of the rival hypotheses. As a matter of fact, in the absence of archaeological proof, the hypothesis of this imported practice subsequently being disseminated in the naval construction of the north-western peninsula, independent or not of the role of the practices of the Galician-Cantabrian region, is as reasonable as that of the existence of prior Mediterranean influences, firmly established in the tradition of naval construction of  the coast of what is now Portugal during more than half a millennium of Arab domination.

Nevertheless, it remains conceivable that the fishing caravels mentioned in documents for the first time in the charter of Gala in 1255, already had the typical characteristics of the type of construction that came to be rightly characterised by its own name ( à carvel). It is equally a hypothesis in the absence of archaeological proof prior to the 14th century — the date which gives the oldest remains of this type recently discovered (1996) in Portugal — the ship of Corpo Santo. This discovery, however, was preceded by that of the ships of Cais do Sodré (1995), dating from the end of the 15th century, and by that of the ship of Ria do Aveiro A, identified in 1994, and dating from the middle of that century. These discoveries were completed in 1997 with the possible identification of the remains of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, that shipwrecked on the Tagus sandbar on September 15, 1606.

This, in an exceptionally short time period, constituted an important contribution toward the history of Portuguese naval architecture and nautical archaeology that broke with a past marked by the complete absence of factual (archaeological) evidence of its maritime tradition.

As a matter of fact, until very few years ago there was a total void in the knowledge about Portuguese ships prior to and during the period that has been described and documented graphically in the classical works of Portuguese naval architecture, the Ars Nautica and the Livro da Fábrica das Naus, by Fernando Oliveira (1570-80), the Livro Primeiro de Arquitectura Naval, by João Baptista Lavanha (1608-1616), and the Livro do Traças de Carpintaria, by Manuel Fernandes (1616).

Archaeology of the ships of the lberian-Atlantic tradition

João da Gama Pimentel Barata, one of the greatest contemporary scholars of Portuguese naval architecture, stated in the introduction to his study, O Traçado das Naus e Galeões Portugueses de 1550-1640 ["The design of Portuguese Naus and Galeões from 1550-1640"], that ‘The design of the ships in the second half of the 16th century and from the beginning of the 17th century is not well known because the technical documentation is limited. In addition, only beginning in the second half of the 17th century, and to its end, are there technical data that permit knowing the ships of the era exactly because the entire long period of a thousand years that runs until the end of the 16th century constitutes a missing link in naval archaeology. Egyptian, Greek and Roman ships are better known than a 16th-century galeao because up till now there still has been no success in discovering the remains of ships from the 16th century at the bottom of the seas and in accessible locations. opposite to what has occurred with the ships of antiquity [...]" (Barata, 1989, vol. I, p. 155).

The distinguished specialist, more expert than anyone else in the classical sources of Portuguese naval architecture, whose scholarly expression is found in Fernando Oliveira, João Baptista Lavanha and Manuel Fernandes, points out the complete absence of archaeological evidence about Portuguese ships that have been discovered and studied.12 This is on the occasion in which the discoveries of ancient ships is increasing throughout the world and the young discipline of underwater archaeology has begun to be developed and to provide a decisive contribution to the advancement of knowledge in this area.

The situation of the archaeological discoveries relative to ships of lberian origin or construction tradition was being greatly modified beginning in the decade of the seventies, during which Pimentel Barata died. In fact, beginning with this date, around ten wreckages of sunken ships connected to this tradition were discovered and studied at several points around the globe. These cases — almost all dating from the 16th century — made up the archaeological expression of alt that is known on the world-wide level about the so-called Iberian or Iberian-Atlantic practice of naval construction until the beginning of the 1990s.13 These findings were the following: Rye A and Cattewater (United Kingdom), Molasses Reef, Highborn Cay and Western Ledge Reef (Bahamas), San Esteban (Texas), San Juan (Canada), Boudeuse Cay (Seychelles) and San Diego (Philippines).

Mentioned wrecks of ships of the Iberian-Atlantic tradition dated up to the beginning of the 16th century
  • San Esteban, 1554, Padre Island, Texas, USA
  • Highborn Cay, 16th century, Highborn Cay, Bahamas, USA
  • Molasses Reef, 16th century, Caicos Bank, Turks and Caicos, USA
  • Western Ledge, 16th century, Bermuda, USA
  • San Juan, 1565, Red Bay, Labrador, Canada
  • San Diego, 1600, Isla de Fortuna, Luzon, Philippines
  • St. Antonio do Tanna, 1697, Mombassa, Kenya
  • Rye A, 16th century, Rye, Sussex, England
  • Cattewater, 16th century, Plymouth, England
  • Ria do Aveiro A, 16th century, Ilhavo, Portugal
  • São Julião da Barra, 1606, Oeiras, Portugal
  • Cais do Sodré, 15th century, Lisbon, Portugal
  • Corpo Santo, 14th century, Lisbon, Portugal

Fig 10. The wreckage of the 15th-century ship Cais do Sodré in Lisbon, discovered during the clearing of a tunnel for the underground under construction. Photo: Paulo Rodrigues

Fig 11. The wreckage of the 14th-century ship Corpo Santo in Lisbon, discovered during the clearing of an air shaft for the underground under construction. Photo: Francisco Alves

Almost all of these correspond to Spanish ships. The case of the wreckage discovered in the Seychelles is a clear exception that has been unquestionably confirmed as belonging to a Portuguese ship from the middle of the 16th century, although there is very little information about the structure of the ship itself. Referring also to the wreckage of the ship of Cattewater, considered as a characteristic example of Iberian or Iberian-Atlantic naval construction, nothing permits making a conclusion about its precise place of origin or construction.

The cases of other wreckages of Portuguese ships discovered, such as the Santo Antonio, sunk in Cornwall in 1527 (Chynoweth, 1968), the Santiago, sunk in 1585 in the Bassas of India — Channel of Mozambique (Santos, 1986; Bousquet, et al., 1990; L’Hour, et al., 1991), and of the São João, São Bento, São Gonçalo, Santissimo Sacramento and Nossa Senhora da Atalaia do Pinheiro, sunk off the coast of South Africa, respectively in 1552 (Maggs, 1984), 1554 (Maggs and Auret, 1982), 1630 (Axelson, 1985) and 1647 (ibid.), cannot be considered here since they also do not include any significant parts of the ship structures.

Although later, being in the second half or even at the end of the 17th century, the cases of the wrecks of the Santissimo Sacramento (called B, considering the aforementioned ship of the same name lost on the South African coast), sunk in 1668 in Bahia (Brazil), and the Santo António do Tanna, sunk in 1697 in front of the Fort of Jesus in Mombassa (Kenya), that were the object of archaeological exploration have to be mentioned. In the first case, in spite of being partially existing, the structure itself of the ship was not the object of a painstaking architectural study (Mello, 1977 and 1979). In the second case, on the other hand, several thorough campaigns of underwater archaeological excavation took place that focused specifically on the study of the hull (Kirkman, 1972; Piercy, 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980).

It has been concluded that until the 1990’s there continued to be no discoveries of Portuguese ships prior to the 17th century with the possibility of being studied architecturally. This was a period during which a cycle of crucial transformations begun at the end of the Medieval era in the history of the techniques of European naval construction was concluded.

This scenario was significantly modified beginning in 1994 with the identification and discovery of the wreckages of the ships, still unpublished or being investigated, of the Rio de Aveiro A, of the Cais do Sodré (Lisbon) (Fig 10) and of the Corpo Santo (Lisbon) — to which can be more recently added that of São Julião da Barra all the evidence corresponding to the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires.

Of particular importance, specifically due to its older dating relative to the majority of examples known up till now on the international level, the ship of Corpo Santo, dated by radiocarbon to the 14th century and those of Ria de Aveiro A and of Cais do Sodré, both from the 15th century, comprise, after Port-Berteau II, the oldest signs of "in skeleton" construction in Atlantic Europe and in the world.

To complete the panel, the only thing missing is contemporary evidence from the period of the highest point of Portuguese naval architecture, in the scientific, technical and experimental plans14 — the 16th century — exactly the period that also marked the highest point of Portuguese domination of the seas and the beginning of its decline.

The discovery, the beginning of the study, and the preliminary identification, but with a strong presumption, of the wreckage of the Nossa Senhora dos Mãrtires — the first Portuguese nau from the end of the 16th century that has come down to us15 — were the response to this question.

Despite the fragmentary character of the cases presented, their low number and the preliminary phase of study in which they are found, the wreckages of the Corpo Santo, of the Rio de Aveiro A, of the Cais do Sodré and of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, make up one of the most important and complementary aggregates of discoveries of contemporary nautical and underwater archaeology16 and comprise a significant contribution to a comparative research that, starting now, extends beyond its geographic scope of origin.

Francisco J. S. Alves
Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática
Av. da India, 136
Lisboa 1300-300
Tel.: +351-1-362 37 99 - Fax: +351-1-363 05 29

E-mails:   /



1. See Oertling, 1989 c, about the concept of the late-Medieval and post-Medieval Iberian-Atlantic naval construction tradition, basically until the 16th century-beginnings of the 17th century

2. An exception is the Large grappling hook, today in the Slices Museum, found in the immediate vicinity of the beach of Carvoeiro (Lagoa, Algarve), dated by radiocarbon to the 13th century thanks to the ball of calcified cord that it had at the base of the shank (Alves, et al., 1994).

3. See the reference below about the wreckage of the ships Agay and Batéguier.

4. At Least, seeing we are not yet in a situation, because of the historical and/or archaeological data, to determine the exceptional cultural and technical realities underlying Christian and Arab sovereignty from the Cantabrian coast to Andalucia throughout the Middle Ages.

5. The following works are basic references in the theoretical debate from which each concepts arise: Hasslöf, 1958, 1963 and 1972; Casson 1964a and b and 1971; Basch 1972; Christiensen, 1973; Gianfrotta and Pomey, 1983 and 1968; Rieth, 1984 and 1985.

6. See in Steffy, 1991 and 1994, that displays a complete, detailed bibliography.

7. In addition, it should be noted, as the authors do, the insignificance of this aggregate, confronted with dozens of ships dating back to Antiquity, a fact that is obviously expressed by the existence of greater areas at darkness in the knowledge about this period, despite being more recent.

8. Eric Reith quite justifiably calls attention to the fact that the origin and nature of the cargo (lberian and typically "Saracen") does not in itself permit an assurance that this is a "Saracen" ship, mentioning that also the ship Culip VI, which was clearly Catalonian or Provençal, also transported "Saracen" ceramics.

9. Located in the middle of a riser, but all the evidence indicates a coastal trading ship.

10. Eric Reith calls attention to the fact that the general definitive and action principle of construction at the ship Saint-Berteau II is that of the "skeleton first", with the placement at the planks on the framework after its construction — the bottom part being constructed in the reverse order (which could be considered a process of mixed construction). He also adds that in dealing with a ship with a smooth bottom, the fore following a substantially diverse construction plan for ships with a keel, its uniqueness in the area of the problem of the origin at the Medieval-Atlantic à carvel should be noted.

11. It is not without some value to point out, relative to the name caravel, the hypothetiral Arabic origin of the etymology of the same of this model type of ship (carib). This itself appears to a have a root is a term that, originally from the Greek, was Latinised (carabuo or cáravo), mentioned in the lberian Peninsula by Santo lsidor of Seville (6th-7th century), and that from Antiquity had included that which mold be considered a common base for the Mediterranean nautical culture, of which the Catalonian term careu (1313) was also an example. Nevertheless, a large number of reference authors consider the origin of the term dates back to the Atlantic directly to Antiquity, without relating to Arab influence (Pico, 1963, Pp. 73-86, Bamata, 1989, vol. II, p. 22, Fonseca, 1978, vol. I, pp. 38-50).

12. The only exception of archaeological data is the case of the two ships discovered partially destroyed in 1970 in the mouth of the Arade river as the — result of dredging. One of these (Arade I) man photographed, filmed, drawn and later dated to the middle of the 16th century by radiocarbon thanks to the admirable initiative of different insightful pioneers of amateur diving and of underwater cinema in Portugal (among whom me point out the architects Jorge Albuquerque and António Modesto, the filmmaker Helder Mesdes and the engineers José and Margarida Farrajota). It is evident that a few years later, already dismantled and without having been the object of a real archaeological study, the remains of these ships once again disappeared into the sediment, without it being possible to relocate them up till now (Matos and Alves, 1987, and Alves, et al, 1994).

13. We refer to the cases of wreckages of ships whose architecture was minimally preserved and not well documented. See Oertling, et at., 1994)

14. As for the remainder, the scholarly expressions of this construction tradition (Oliveira. Fernandes, Lavanha) go back to this century. As a matter of fact, despite the mock of the three authors covering a period of almost half a century that included the last decades of the 16th and the first of the 17th, it is obvious that the mocks of Fernandes and Lavanha, from the beginning of the 17th century represent the practice of naval construction from the end of the 16th century.

15. As with the San Diego, sunk in the Philippines in 1600, the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, sunk in 1606 can reasonably be considered an example of naval construction from the end of the 16th century more than an example of this type of construction from the beginning of the 17th century.

16. This aggregate of findings of ship wreckages in Portugal man completed at the beginning of the month of July 1997 by a new finding, not of the same type, but connected, once again occurring in the riverside area of Lisbon. In fact, during the clearing out of the future subterranean parking area in the Praça do Municipio, between the preinstalled concrete pillars and malls, about twenty large pieces of mood already cut with the typical shape of the framework of a ship, although clearly not yet used. Apparently this man the partially mocked ram material, typical of a storage area of a shipyard. It happens that the location of the finding corresponds more or less precisely to the historic ship-building area of Ribeira dos Naus.


The article was originally published in Nossa Senhora dos Mártires: the last Voyage (Expo '98). Published by kind permission on Nordic Underwater Archaeology, March 2000.

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