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Global Cargo

Found in the waters off a small Dutch island, a seventeenth-century shipwreck provides an unparalleled view of the golden age of European trade

May/June 2018

Texel Shipwreck Dress


Sometimes, shipwrecks appear out of what seems to be merely sand. For more than 350 years, a ship lay unseen just off the Dutch island of Texel in the southeastern part of the North Sea, known as the Wadden Sea. This unique tidal and wetland environment, created by the interaction of salt water and fresh water with the mainland and islands, is one of the most dynamic ecosystems in the world, hosting an extraordinarily diverse biomass. It is home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, and is a crucial stopover on the major migratory flyways—between 10 and 12 million birds pass through each year. “This is an area which changes continuously,” says Maarten van Bommel, professor of conservation science and chair of the Restoration and Conservation of Cultural Heritage section at the University of Amsterdam. “Islands here grow and collapse, and the bottom of the sea also changes a great deal.” This can produce some surprises.


Hidden for centuries at a depth of nearly 30 feet, the so-called Burgzand Noord 17 wreck unexpectedly materialized on the seabed several years ago. A bit of the vessel and some artifacts were first spotted by members of a local amateur diving club in 2009, but it was not until 2014 that more of the ship and its cargo began to emerge. Because of the shifting nature of the seafloor and the need to protect the wreck and its contents from further illegal exploration, the artifacts from the site—which would eventually number more than 1,000—were quickly removed. “Finds appeared that needed to be saved immediately, otherwise they would be gone,” says van Bommel. “There wasn’t the time, as there is on land, to do a proper excavation.”


The particular setting where Burgzand Noord 17 is located has provided both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the preservation of the ship’s cargo. The wreck sits in an environment that inhibits the oxygen, bacteria, and fungi that typically break down organic material. There, protected from light and currents, protein-based items of animal and insect origin, such as leather and silk, survived for centuries, while those of plant origin, such as book pages, and shirts, collars, and cuffs made of cotton or linen, are missing from the bundles brought up from the wreck, explains van Bommel.


Texel Shipwreck PurseInterestingly, in the Wadden Sea’s diverse environment, shipwrecks just a few miles from Burgzand Noord 17 have contained plant fibers that were preserved. Around 1635, a vessel called the Aanloop Molengat sank on the opposite side of Texel from Burgzand Noord 17. There, both the plant fibers used to bale cattle hides and the poorly tanned hides themselves were recovered. Notwithstanding the vagaries of preservation, Burgzand Noord 17’s stunning collection of silk garments and velvet textiles, leather book covers, and pottery represents the richest cargo of seventeenth-century luxury goods ever found underwater.


On busy days in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, hundreds of ships would anchor on the eastern side of Texel. For large vessels, the island was as close as they could come to the trading capital of Amsterdam because of a sandbank in the city’s harbor called Pampus—a small island there bears the same name today. (This changed in the nineteenth century when massive waterways such as the North Holland Canal and North Sea Canal opened new routes to the city.) Large ships would load and unload their cargo without ever traveling the 55 miles south to Amsterdam’s port, relying on smaller boats and carts to move the goods. Warships such as man-of-war frigates would even drop off their cannons at Texel for servicing in Amsterdam as there was simply no way for large ships to pull into the tricky harbor—unless a spring tide, just after a new or full moon, miraculously eased their way by raising the sea level.




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