Public invited to view ‘treasures’ from historic Rooswijk wreck this August

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Angela Middleton (conservator Historic England) and Sara Bohuch (student conservation at University of Cardiff) are looking at the thimble chest that was recovered from the Rooswijk site. Copyright Historic England/Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands

New research has revealed insights into the cargo and crew of the 18th-century Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship the Rooswijk, wrecked off the Kent coast. Maritime archaeologists are diving the site, continuing the excavations started last summer, with the aim of revealing more of the Rooswijk’s story.

A drawing of a ship similar to the Rooswijk – a Dutch ‘hekboot’ by Adolf van der Laan in 1716. (Copyright) Collection of the Fries Scheepvaartmuseum.

Over the weekend 11-12 August the public will be able to see extraordinary finds from the Rooswijk and explore the techniques and technology the archaeologists are using. Project specialists from conservators and archaeobotanists to zooarchaeologists and material scientists will be on hand to answer questions.

The Rooswijk sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands in January 1740 with all 237 crew lost. Thousands of vessels are known to have been wrecked in this area, dubbed ‘the great ship swallower’.

Researchers in the Netherlands have been able to postively identify and name 19 of the 237 members of the Rooswijk’s crew from documents held in Amsterdam archives. Until now it was only clear that the Rooswijk was under the authority of skipper Daniël Ronzieres, as all other records of the crew and passengers were lost in the shipwreck. Two tibia (leg bones) from two individuals have been recovered from the wreck and there is potential for more human remains to be found.

Collection of the different coins that were found in the wreck of the Rooswijk. Copyright Historic England/Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands

The Rooswijk set off on its last journey, from the Netherlands to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), with a lot of silver on board – all of it destined for trade in Asia. The precious metal was in high demand and was exchanged for asian spices and porcelain. The value of the Rooswijk’s known cargo is thought to have been more than 300,000 guilders. The cargo was in the form of silver ingots and ‘pieces of eight’ – Mexican reals – these were minted to a recognised standard weight, making them perfect for international trade.

However, archaeologists have uncovered lots of other, older coins at the wreck site including ducatons from the Republic and the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) that were not part of the sanctioned cargo. This suggests that the Rooswijk’s passengers and crew were carrying extra silver to trade illegally.

Other coins found during the dives have small holes deliberately made in them, an indication that the crew sewed them into their clothes to smuggle to the Dutch East Indies. Concealing the coins in this way also kept them safely hidden from others on board. At this time we know that people were smuggling silver in their shoes and belts, such was the demand overseas.

As a protected wreck site the Rooswijk’s remains are owned by the Dutch Government, and managed by Historic England on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The #Rooswijk1740 project is led by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, in collaboration with Historic England and contractor MSDS Marine.

Collection of the pewter jugs found in the wreck of the Rooswijk. Jugs like this were used to hold liquids and used by the officers and higher ranks on board. Copyright Historic England/Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands

Martijn Manders, project leader of #Rooswijk1740, said:

“The Rooswijk is special because it tells us about ordinary people of that time, but also about entrepreneurship, and (trade) relationships that ensured connections between cultures all over the world. We consider this to be shared cultural heritage. We therefore work closely with our counterpart Historic England. Our British colleagues are now mainly working on the conservation of the finds in Portsmouth, which is a very important part of the project. The finds help us tell the story of the people on board, we can relate specific personal objects to what they did in general: how they lived, what the circumstances were on board the ship.”

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said:

“It’s extraordinary that after more than 270 years we now know the names of some of the people who may have lost their lives with the Rooswijk. Sea-faring was a dangerous way of life and this really brings it home. The revelation that the Rooswijk was used to smuggle silver adds to our understanding of global trade at this time – we shall have to wait and see what else we might discover from this site in the coming months.”

Archaeologists are continuing to investigate the wreck. They are finding more personal items alongside boxes and barrels in the galley behind the main mast. A ‘knee’ – a huge piece of angled wood used to support the deck – has been uncovered and will be investigated and recorded to illustrate the enormous size of the ship. The team is working towards where the stern of the ship should be with dives continuing until mid-August.

A nit comb, lead cheese container, pewter vessels and a chest full of thimbles are some of the personal items that have been conserved since their recovery from the wreck site.

For further information on the excavation and the open weekend this August visit: www.historicengland.org.uk/get-involved/visit/rooswijk-shipwreck-excavation

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