Shipwreck Archaeology in the Dutch Caribbean

by Richard Adamczyk

Banner Image: Caroline Foley taking photos of identified artefacts (photo by Ruud Stelten) 

This summer, the Shipwreck Survey conducted an underwater archaeological field school on the small Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius (Statia). Research took place on July 10-23, 2021 and was directed by Ruud Stelten, PhD, and Alexandre Hinton. The field school investigated the Triple Wreck site (SE-504), a popular recreational dive site (named after the three anchors found there, not to be confused with three actual ships). Now known to be a significant archaeological site, Triple Wreck became a target of the Shipwreck Survey’s regular field school and has been subjected to five previous field seasons of research. Fieldwork for the July 2021 season consisted of nine dives over the course of two weeks. Methods included artefact identification, photography, mapping, recovery, and conservation; metal detection survey; photogrammetry; background research; and a presentation to the general public. The archaeological research team included the author, Dr. Stelten, Ms. Hinton, Giuliana Alfinito, Ariadne Argyros, Matthew Bee, Caroline Foley, Ryan Govostes, Marsella Johnson, Julia Keating, Ian Stettner, and Harrison Wehmann. Logistical assistance and safety support was provided by the Scubaqua Dive Center staff.

Statia is a small volcanic island situated in the northeastern Lesser Antilles, and is considered a special municipality of the Netherlands. The tiny island is fairly unknown and is not even listed in some world atlases. The forgotten island was not always so obscure, and in fact, was one of the most important New World ports of the late eighteenth century. Real estate prices in Oranjestad, the capital (and only) city, was comparable to Manhattan during this period, and at its height, the harbour at Statia received thousands of ships annually.

The island was established as a free port in 1756, and Caribbean exports such as sugar and rum were frequently shipped out of Statia to avoid taxes, tariffs, and other duties. The island also received many imports into the Caribbean, including enslaved people from West Africa. Statia traded in a variety of other goods, namely armaments, and became the primary supplier of weaponry to the budding United States during the American War of Independence. In fact, the Netherlands became the first foreign power to recognize the newly-independent nation when Fort Oranjestad fired their cannons in salute of an American Continental ship in 1776. Free trade ended after France temporarily acquired Statia in 1795, and the dry island struggled to transition into a plantation economy. This ultimately led to its decline. The island’s great importance to world trade resulted in commercial success, development, and a high density of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century sites. The island’s swift decline and a lack of later development has preserved many of these fascinating archaeological marvels. These sites include warehouses, merchant homes, plantation structures, shipwrecks, and more. Statia is now referred to as the “historic gem of the Caribbean” and has a higher density of historic sites than any other island in the West Indies.

The Triple Wreck site is located 18 meters deep in Oranje Bay, the historical and modern port on Statia. The bay is protected from major winds and the deep seafloor posed few hazards for ships coming into port. Previous fieldwork at Triple Wreck has uncovered a wealth of artefacts and data that inform our understanding of the site. Unfortunately, the tropical waters of the Caribbean are home to shipworms (Teredo navalis) that consume wood and leave little to no wooden hull remains of wrecked ships in the region. No hull remains have been identified at Triple Wreck, although there is the potential for some wooden remains to have survived beneath the sediment or buried under ballast piles.

Above: Julia Keating (left) and Ariadne Argyros (right) conducting metal detector survey at site SE-504 (photo by Ruud Stelten)

Ballast is one of the most common artefact types found on Triple Wreck, which consists primarily of Dutch-made yellow bricks that were placed in the center of the ship to improve stability. Several barrel hoop fragments, likely from barrels used to store supplies and cargo, were identified on the seafloor. A cannon and three anchor fragments are also present on the site. A variety of ceramic plates and containers, glass wine bottles, a pewter spoon, shoe buckles, tobacco pipes, etc. are the material remains of daily crew activities onboard the ship. A metal ankle shackle was also recovered, which could have been used to restrain disobedient crewman or possibly to transport enslaved individuals; as only one shackle has been identified so far, it is not clear if the ship was used to transport human cargo.

Above: Matthew Bee (left) and Harrison Wehmann (right) mapping artifact locations on the seafloor (photo by Ruud Stelten)

Ceramics from the site include tin-glazed earthenware (delftware), Westerwald stoneware, Chinese-export porcelain, and more. The assemblage of datable artefacts falls fairly tightly into the mid-eighteenth century, with a few late eighteenth century artefacts that were interpreted as intrusive artefacts deposited after the wrecking event. The mid-eighteenth-century date range corresponds well with a 1747 account in the London Magazine that 68 ships anchored in the harbour at Statia were sunk by a hurricane. The lack of natural hazards in the area of Triple Wreck also suggests a hurricane or other powerful storm was the most likely cause of the wreck.

Above: Fragment of Westerwald stoneware found at the Triple Wreck site

The July 2021 fieldwork, which targeted the southern portion of the site, resulted in the identification and recovery of a stoneware gin bottle dating to the 1770s and a cylindrical olive green wine bottle that dates circa 1760-1790. These artefacts fall outside the mid-eighteenth-century date range typically found at the site. In fact, a review of artefacts identified during previous field seasons revealed that other late eighteenth-century material, such as creamware ceramics, was also found at the southern portion of the site. The now substantial assemblage of late eighteenth-century material concentrated in one area suggests that these are not intrusive artefacts, but the remains of a second wrecked vessel located to the south of the mid-eighteenth-century wreck. There are now two known shipwrecks located at the Triple Wreck site.

Above: Wine bottle, ca. 1760-1790, found at Triple Wreck

The Shipwreck Survey’s July 2021 field school on St. Eustatius was a productive research endeavour that revealed new information about a fascinating shipwreck site at one of the most historically-significant islands in the Caribbean. The site consists of at least two shipwrecks: a mid-eighteenth-century vessel to the north and a late eighteenth-century vessel located to the south. The ships were likely wrecked by storm activity, and the northern vessel may have been sunk by a documented 1747 hurricane. Triple Wreck has yielded a wealth of historic artefacts that provide information about daily crew activities and expansive global trade networks. Research at the site is on-going, and prospective field school students can apply for the next trip and embark on a fascinating archaeological adventure.

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