Multiple sabre blades and silver coins are among 2,500+ artefacts recovered from 18th-century Dutch shipwreck the Rooswijk – and now featured in a new video. Historic England (HE) wanted to share the techniques used by conservators and materials scientists at its Fort Cumberland research facility to clean up and investigate the discoveries.
A hundred intricately etched blades featuring faces of the sun and moon are among the finds from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship that have been keeping the specialists occupied.
The artefacts were found by archaeological divers during two recovery excavations from 2017/18. The dives were carried out in partnership with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, which has funded and is leading the #Rooswijk1740 project in collaboration with HE and contractor MSDS Marine.
The Dutch government owns the wreck and artefacts but HE manages them on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.
The Rooswijk had been heading from Texel in the Netherlands for Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia, but sank in a fierce storm with all 237 crew lost on Kent’s Goodwin Sands in 1740. Now a Protected Wreck site, it is considered at risk because of its exposed position.
“The Rooswijk wreck lies at approximately 25m of depth in a highly dynamic environment,” says overall project leader Martijn Manders, maritime heritage overseas co-ordinator for the Cultural Heritage Agency. “It takes a lot of effort to excavate a shipwreck under these conditions.
“The conservation, however, has proven to be just as challenging. The conservators have done an amazing job. Through mini-excavations in the lab, we now know so much more about the ship, the people on board and their trade. I am happy the objects and the exciting stories they behold are now ready to be shown to the world.”
Chests containing trade goods including the sabre blades were brought up set in thick concretion, which had to be removed using tools such as the Air Scribe, described as like a pen with a vibrating nib, and the Ultrasonic Scaler, which picks out the fine details.
All the blades had been acid-etched on both sides, with some displaying a sun, moon, stars and a weaving snake – not designs associated with the VOC, but seen before on other blades in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
X-radiography used to see inside concretion revealed knife blades, tool handles and silver coins – 1,846 of which have now been recovered. The official company-owned coins were marked ‘M’, indicating that they had been made at the Mexico City Mint, and were used primarily for trade and exchange.
Privately held coins were likely being smuggled by crew-members against VOC rules for personal profit, and the archaeologists think that as much as half of the silver onboard Rooswijk might have been illegal.
“It has been fascinating to slowly reveal the many secrets hidden for hundreds of years within the objects found at the Rooswijk wreck-site,” said HE senior archaeological conservator Angela Middleton. “We are delighted to share this new video about the artefacts and to highlight the incredible work that has been carried out by our specialists to preserve these items for future generations to enjoy.”
HE is funding events at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire on 18, 22 and 23 July during the Festival of Archaeology (15-30 July) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Protected Wrecks Act. As part of the festival, it is also offering younger children the opportunity to learn about the Rooswijk finds, and a colouring activity featuring the engraved blades is available for download.