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The Most Unexpected Treasures Found in Shipwrecks

Shipwrecks often serve as time capsules sealed away from the curious eyes of humans by megatonnes of water. It’s hardly surprising that much of what we know of ancient history is thanks to these otherwise very tragic sites. And the kinds of treasures and artifacts retrieved from wrecks are more than just surprising. Clothing, letters, ancient computers - the list of fascinating finds salvaged from shipwrecks expands far beyond the expected lineup of antique coins, weapons, and jewelry.

A 400-year-old royal wardrobe

Treasures From Shipwrecks
Image source: Imgur

Fabrics are among the first things to disintegrate in water. So imagine the surprise on the faces of the maritime archeologists who had opened a 400-year-old box and found a nearly perfectly preserved silk gown, a cloak, stockings, bodices, and an embroidered handbag - all richly decorated with gold and silver thread. The gorgeous 17th-century wardrobe was discovered in the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel in the Netherlands, and it’s one of the most unique and outstanding shipwreck treasures ever found. 

Even more unexpectedly, historians were able to track down the owner of the luxurious wardrobe. The gown and accessories likely belonged to the Scottish lady-in-waiting Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe and a confidante of the English Queen Henrietta Maria. According to a royal letter from 1642, the wardrobe was lost when 12 ships of the royal fleet sank as they were crossing the North Sea from Dover to the Netherlands sometime in February of that year.

The correspondence mentions that some of the ladies in waiting lost their clothing in the unfortunate voyage, which let historians connect the opulent dress to Jean Kerr due to its style and slightly larger size. Pretty amazing historical detective work, right?

Related Article: 15 Archeological Finds That Remained Unexplained

18th-century beer

Treasures From Shipwrecks 18th-century beer

Would try a bottle of ice-cold 18th-century booze? It turns out that you actually can, and here’s how it all came to be. In the 1990s, a team of divers unearthed several sealed glass bottles on the sunken merchant ship called Sydney Cove that was moving goods between India and Australia. The ship sank near Preservation Island in Tasmania in 1797, and thanks to the frigid waters in the area, some of the produce was preserved for centuries. This included the alcohol, with deep-sea explorers finding live yeast in the sealed bottles they’ve brought to the surface.

Moreover, chemical analysis has shown that the yeast in the bottles belongs to a unique strain that no longer exists today. In 2018, an Australian brewing company called James Squire took this ancient yeast culture and brewed it into beer. Appropriately called “The Wreck Preservation Ale,” this time capsule of a beer can still be purchased today. The company describes the taste as spicy, malty, and stormy, with a “splash of funk.”

The Antikythera Mechanism

Treasures From Shipwrecks The Antikythera Mechanism
Image source: Stefan Geens/ Flickr

Certainly, one of the most mysterious and precious items ever retrieved from a shipwreck is the Antikythera Mechanism. In 1900, an underwater shipwreck excavation unearthed an Ancient Greek mechanism the likes of which the world had never seen before. Dubbed the “world’s first computer,” the wind-up dial system was created to study the celestial movements of the Sun, the Moon, and 5 planets. The mechanism had a calendar and it could likely predict eclipses.

The Antikythera Mechanism is more complex than anything else created by humans in the following 1,000 years. Exactly how Ancient Greeks had managed to build such a fascinating contraption remains an enigma. Learn more about this arcane artifact here - A Guide to the Mysterious Antikythera Mechanism.

The Treasure of All Treasures

Treasures From Shipwrecks Samuel Scott
A​ction off Cartagena by Samuel Scott (1708) The painting depicts the San Jose being destroyed Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Often referred to as the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” the treasure on the Spanish galleon San José is worth at least 17 billion dollars today. The ship was a 64-gun galleon of the Spanish Armada and sank in a battle south of Cartagena, Colombia in 1708 as it was carrying 200 tons of gold, silver, and emeralds.

Nearly three centuries later, in 2015, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered the wreck on the ocean floor at a depth of over 2,000 feet, but the treasure has been left untouched as of February 2022. Why? Well, it's complicated. Several countries, including Colombia, Spain, and Bolivia contest the rights to the treasure, and some dispute the ethical implications of disturbing the war grave of nearly 600 soldiers buried at the shipwreck.

Undelivered Love Letters

Treasures From Shipwrecks letter

Documents and letters are the least likely to survive a shipwreck, which is why they’re always so rare to find antique papers even in more recent shipwrecks. This is exactly why marine explorers were stunned to retrieve hundreds of handwritten letters in a wreck that sank in 1941. The Gairsoppa was on the way to Ireland when it was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat that instantly killed the 86-member crew and sent the ship to the depths of the ocean. 

In the early 2010s, 717 letters, many still legible, were miraculously lifted from the wreck. The letters were buried under a layer of mail bags and piles of sand, which sealed them from water damage for decades. Many of the correspondences are love letters, like this romantic message from a soldier stationed in India: “Imagine that I have my lips tight against yours with my arms around you tight … hearts beating as one.” How lovely!

A Super Aged Cheese

And if you thought that even preserving paper for decades underwater is rather trivial, this "artifact" is sure to blow your socks off! In 2016, a group of divers exploring a sunken 17th-century battleship off the coast of Sweden unearthed a sealed tin of cheese. According to the divers, the 300-year-old cheese didn't smell particularly appetizing either. The leader of the expedition Lars Einarsson describes the scent as, “a mixture of yeast and Roquefort, a sort of really ripe, unpasteurized cheese.”

The term "aged cheese" gets a completely new meaning in a context like this, doesn't it?

Proof of the Maritime Silk Route

Treasures From Shipwrecks Bronze mirror with cosmological decoration from the Belitung shipwreck
Bronze decorated mirror from the Belitung shipwreck (759) Image source: Wikimedia Commons
In 1998, an Indonesian fisherman was fishing just off the coast of Belitung Island when he discovered a 9th-century ship loaded with Chinese Tang Dynasty artifacts. The ship turned out to be an Arabian dhow (a sailing ship) that sank more than a millennium ago at around 830 AD.
The ship was loaded with Chinese wares and was on its way back from China to Arabia when it sank to the ocean floor. Apart from carrying priceless Tang-dynasty artifacts that gave the ship the name "Tang Treasure," the 9th-century vessel is of great historical importance, as it is physical proof that trade between China and the Middle East existed long before the Silk Road.
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