1681 Spanish shipwreck holds intrigue for Texas researchers

Items and sea life found in a Gulf shipwreck being explored by Texas A&M University at Galveston research scientists and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts.

By Carol Christian - Chron

Sword blades, scissors and mule shoes are a few of the myriad artifacts from a colonial Spanish shipwreck being studied by Texas researchers.

The Spanish merchant ship, which sank in 1681 off the Caribbean coast of Panama, is a rare find, according to underwater archaeologists at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Dug out of sand in July 2011, the ship, known as a nao, has recently been identified through painstaking analysis as Nuestra Senora de Encarnacion, which was built in Veracruz, Mexico, for Spain. The identification was accomplished partly through archival research in Seville, Spain, by project historian Jose Espinosa of the Universidad del Norte.

The  334-year-old wreck is extremely well preserved because it was buried in up to 3 feet of muddy sand and silt, said Fritz Hanselmann, head of the research team.

"The amount of hull that's still there is really unique for the Caribbean and any warm saltwater locale," he said. "Very few Spanish merchant naos have ever been found, making this one an extraordinarily significant find because it is so well preserved."

The entire lower portion of the ship's hull is still there, along with the cargo in the hold, including wooden barrels, more than 100 wooden boxes with sword blades, scissors, mule shoes, nails, ceramics and other items.

About 20 artifacts have been removed from the ship, in dives during 2012 and 2014, Hanselmann said. Among them are lead seals, devices that looked like coins and were attached to strings around items such as bales of cloth, to mark ownership. While the cloth has long since disintegrated, the lead seals remain.

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