Power X-ray to be turned on Rooswijk finds

The Rooswijk was a Dutch East India Company (VOC) trade vessel that sank off the coast of Kent on January 10th, 1740, on its way to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). The 135-foot three-masted ship set out on what would have been only its second voyage to the Dutch East Indies when it fell victim to the notoriously treacherous Goodwin Sands, nicknamed the Great Ship Swallower. None of the 237 crew members on board survived.

The wreck of the Rooswijk was discovered in 2000 by local diver Ken Welling. The remains are owned by the Dutch government, but as the shipwreck lies in British territorial waters, its management is up to the UK. In 2007 it was designation a legally protected wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act which prohibits private parties from disturbing the site. Access to protected wrecks is strictly controlled by Historic England. A 2016 survey found the wreck was at high risk from forces both environmental — shifting sands, erosion, shipworm — and human — unauthorized sports diving — so the cultural heritage ministries of both countries developed a project called #Rooswijk1740 to excavate, manage and thoroughly study the site. This is the first Dutch East India wreck to be researched and explored scientifically in such depth.

Excavations began in 2017 with a focus on recording everything in the debris field and recovering select material for conservation in laboratory conditions, thorough documentation¬† and analysis. An enormous number of objects have been recovered, including the ship’s armaments (flintlock pistols, piles of lead shot, 23 of its 24 cannons, piles of cannon balls), coins (mostly Mexican reals, aka ‘pieces of eight’), silver ingots, personal items (nit comb, pewter vessels, a chest full of thimbles) and assorted cargo (chests of sabre blades, stone blocks, sheet copper).

There were other types of coins on board besides the pieces of eight, key evidence that the Rooswijk crew were doing brisk business in silver smuggling. These coins are ducatons, older Netherlands issue, not the internationally accepted currency of the pieces of eight that was the only officially sanctioned silver cash on board. The Rooswijk‘s silver ingots and reals would have been used to buy spices and porcelain in Jakarta, and to maintain its buying power the VOC strictly prohibited the transportation of any other silver on its ships. The wreckage proves that the crew and/or passengers paid that injunction no heed. They just hid their coins, stuffing them in shoes and belts. Some of the coins found on the dives were pierced with small holes used to sew them into the lining of clothes.

All objects recovered from the wreck are triaged and recorded at a warehouse in Ramsgate. They then move on to further conservation and documentation at a Historic England laboratory after which any objects salvaged from the Rooswijk are returned to its owner, The Netherlands.

Historic England ‘s research capabilities have just gotten a major upgrade courtesy of a ¬£150,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation. HE used the grant to install a state-of-the art high-resolution walk-in X-ray facility in Portsmouth that will allow researchers to scan large, thick concretions to identify artifacts trapped in the rock-hard mixtures of sand, rock, corrosion materials and ocean debris. Concretions can take years to remove and are so dense conventional X-rays often cannot may or not be removable in their entirety. The high-powered movable X-ray tube in the new facility penetrates fully through even the heaviest corrosion, so besides assuaging our curiosity with instant effect, the X-rays will be invaluable aids in conservation.

Because a large part of the goal of #Rooswijk1740 is sharing the discoveries and new-found knowledge with the broader pubic, they have really gone all-out on creating a rich store of digital content about the shipwreck. You can do a virtual tour with annotations of the entire shipwreck site here. Many recovered artifacts have been scanned and the 3D models uploaded to Sketchfab. It’s all gold, but I’m particularly enamored of a series of 3D models made at different stages in the excavation of a large concretion. There are models from 12 stages (1-6, 8-13) so far: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. They also put together a two-part short film about the wreck and its excavation.

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