Subscribe to Archaeology

An Elegant Enigma

The luxurious possessions of a seventeenth-century woman continue to intrigue researchers a decade after they were retrieved from a shipwreck

July/August 2023

Netherlands Texel Dress PortraitThe elegantly dressed woman ran her eye around the large, empty living room that had once been filled with richly hued silk-and-wool carpets made in Lahore, finely carved furniture, and calf leather–bound books. She thought of the large dining table set for so many parties with shiny silver goblets and blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, and she wondered what her life would be like in the future. She had spent decades in this far-off land, but it was time to leave. Her belongings had been packed in four heavy chests weeks before, sent ahead to arrive and be put away before she and her family even embarked on the ship that would bring them home. She thought about how happy and relieved she would be when she saw some of her precious personal items again. There was the red velvet purse with silver embroidery she carried to special events, the finest pair of silk stockings she owned, her ivory comb and pig-bristle brush, the little standing mirror she used to take a last look at herself each morning and evening, and two priceless dresses, one of which she treasured most of all.


Who was this woman? No one knows.


Nearly 15 years ago, off the small Dutch island of Texel in the Wadden Sea, recreational divers spotted a shipwreck 30 feet below the surface. Some five years later, the sands that covered the wreck had shifted and more of the ship began to appear. Divers quickly removed some of the ship’s contents. (For an in-depth report on the excavation, go to “Global Cargo”) The shipwreck came to be called the Palmwood Wreck for its cargo of unworked wood. As archaeologists, historians, and conservators continued to study the ship, which remains on the seafloor, and the more than 1,500 objects—including carpet fragments, wooden furniture, books, everyday and fancy dishware, and silver vessels—that were recovered, it became clear that the ship had been transporting more than just a valuable raw material used to make chess pieces and musical instruments.


Netherlands Texel Map 2Despite early suggestions that the vessel may have been an English warship or royal ship on a secret mission to sell the crown jewels to fund the English Civil War, the wreck has now been conclusively shown to be a Dutch-built trader constructed around 1645 that sank around 1660. “This was a well-known type of Mediterranean trading ship called a pinnace,” says Alec Ewing, curator at the Museum Kaap Skil, where some of the most important artifacts from the wreck are housed. “Every archaeological marker, and its location in a spot where ninety-nine percent of the wrecks are Dutch ships, points to a Dutch origin. It’s time to let the English theory go.” In the seventeenth century, the Golden Age of global shipping, Dutch merchants brought a vast array of goods from across the world to the Netherlands. “This trading ship was almost certainly on its way back to northern Europe, and most likely to Amsterdam,” Ewing says. “But that doesn’t really explain what four chests of extremely luxurious objects that were already decades old when the ship sank were doing on board.”


Netherlands Texel Sock Short preview
Knit One, Purl Two

Related Article:
Texel Shipwreck Dress
Global Cargo

Netherlands Texel Brass Gold Powder Box preview
Lost and Found at Sea