Sat, May 03, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Ancient shipwreck found off the coast of southern Africa


The ship was laden with tonnes of copper ingots, elephant tusks, gold coins — and cannons to fend off pirates.

But it had nothing to protect it from the fierce weather off a bleak stretch of African coast when it sank 500 years ago.

Now it has been found, stumbled upon by De Beers geologists prospecting for diamonds off Namibia.

“If you’re mining on the coast, sooner or later you’ll find a wreck,” archeologist Dieter Noli said on Thursday.

Namdeb Diamond Corp, a joint venture of the government of Namibia and De Beers, reported the April 1 find in a statement on Wednesday.

Noli said one of the geologists saw a few ingots, but had no idea what they were. Then they found what looked like cannon barrels. That’s when they called Noli.

The find “was what I’d been waiting for, for 20 years,” Noli said. “Understandably, I was pretty excited. I still am.”

Judging from the coins and the type of cannons and navigational equipment, the ship went down in the late 1400s or early 1500s.

John Broadwater, chief archeologist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, compared the remnants to evidence at a crime scene.

“The surf would have pounded that wreck to smithereens,” he said. “It’s not like Pirates of the Caribbean, with a ship more or less intact.”

The wealth on board is intriguing. Noli said the copper could mean the ship had been sent by a government looking for material to build cannons. Trade in ivory was usually controlled by royal families, another indication the ship was on official business.

On the other hand, why did the captain have so many coins? Shouldn’t they have been traded for the ivory and copper?

“Either he did a very, very good deal. Or he was a pirate,” Noli said.

What brought the vessel down may remain a mystery, but Noli has theories.

Imagine a leaky, overladen ship caught in a storm. The copper ingot would have sat snug, he said. But the tusks — some 50 have been found — could have shifted, tipping the ship.

“And down you go, weighed down by your treasure,” he said.

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