Highbourne Cay Shipwreck (c. 1520)

Highbourne Cay Shipwreck

Nicholas Budsberg and Charles Bendig

Introduction

The Highbourne Cay wreck is an early 16th-century Spanish shipwreck located in the Exumas, Bahamas. Originally discovered by spearfishermen in the 1960s, the wreck was stripped of all visible artifacts by treasure salvors. Archaeologists associated with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology visited the site in the 1980s and conducted a trench excavation through the middle of the concreted ballast mound. This excavation revealed intact hull structure that provided one of the earliest glimpses into how ships were built during this period. Revisiting the site in 2015, archaeologists discovered that the wooden hull remains still survived beneath the concreted ballast mound, but due to so many changes to the integrity of the site, that the environment threatened to destroy what remained. A team of international nautical archaeologists conducted a complete excavation of the ballast mound in 2017 finding hundreds of artifacts and mapping surviving hull structure.

Team

The 2017 Highbourne Cay Project was planned as a community archaeology project.

Story of the Ship

There is little known about the ship, due to the lack of overtly diagnostic artifacts suggesting that when the vessel sank there was enough time to offload any personal items or cargo aboard.

Loss

None of the surviving hull structure provides any evidence why the ship sank. Earlier investigations claim that two anchors were found 150 yards north of the wreck site.

Find

This site was found in 1965 by three American spear fishermen who contacted Mendel Peterson of the Smithsonian Institute for assistance. Peterson contacted treasure salvors from Bermuda and the team subsequently removed all visible artifacts from the site in 1966 and 1967. Archaeologists associated with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology initiated a survey of the site in 1983 and returned in 1986 to perform a partial excavation through the center of the ballast pile.

Site Formation Process

The wreck is positioned in Allen’s Cut, several hundred yards off the northwestern tip of Highbourne Cay. The site is 6-8 m deep and rests on a bed of porous limestone with little sediment in the area. There is a 3+ knot current on the site that runs on a north-south axis and switches every 12 hours. Archaeological surveys in the area conclude that ship fasteners, hardware, artifacts, and various other materials are scattered over 40 m in every direction. The main hull structure is only 20 x 15 m and pinned beneath a concreted ballast mound. Over the course of the last 30 years the current has undercut the ballast pile and was slowly eroding all surviving hull remains beneath until the 2017 excavation.

Tumulus

There was a prominent concreted ballast mound (20 x 15) on the site until the 2017 excavation. Bowls formed into the limestone from shipwreck include smaller ballast and crushed coral remains.

Ballast

When the Institute of Nautical Archaeology team completed their amidships trench through the ballast mound, they also included collecting profiles of the surviving “walls” created during excavation. Several of the more unusual rocks found in the mound were collected for analysis but have not been published on.

Ship Fittings

Anchors

The site was marked by a wrought-iron anchor lying on top of the ballast. In total, three wrought iron anchors are assumed to belong to the shipwreck.  One anchor was found lying directly on top of the ballast mound, and two others were found approximately 150 meters to the north of the site.  Two of the three anchors were the same size and weight; the anchor found on top of the site and one of the two anchors found to the north.  The other anchor found to the north was the largest of the complement and is considered to be the sheet anchor that had been rigged as a bower.  A fourth anchor, not currently believed to belong to the Highbourne Cay shipwreck, was found in 1973 or 1974 by Jack Robinson, and was removed from Allen’s Cut and redeposited in the Highbourne Cay Marina where it remains today.  A wrought iron harpoon was also recovered in 1967, and represents a unique artifact not usually found on 15th- or 16th-century shipwrecks.

Guns

Over a dozen wrought-iron artillery, breech chambers, and shot lay off the northeast end (bow) of the ship. The artillery and shot known to have been recovered include two wrought iron bombardetas and two compatible breech chambers.  At least 13 wrought iron versos – two of which thought to be verso dobles, a longer type of swivel gun – and eighteen compatible breech chambers (one loaded with powder and sealed with a wooden plug) were also removed from the site in the 1960s. Iron wedges for the locking the breech chambers into the back of the artillery were also found, although the exact number is unknown. Lead-cored iron shot of predominantly three sizes (3.5 – 6.3 cm) were documented in both 1967, 1986, and in 2015.

Hull Remains

Scantlings

Timber

Sided

[cm]

Molded

[cm]

Keel

15-16.5

21

Keelson

16-21

17

Maststep

   Mortise

40

15-17 x 65

25

13.5-15.5

Buttresses

11.8-13.5

16-21.9

Floor timbers

16.5

17.5

Futtocks

16.5

17.5

Room-and-space

At central frames

40

30

Planking

8-25

6

Ceiling

12-31

3

Main mast Ø

Chock

35

30

 

15

 

Description

The ship wrecked in relatively fast current and shallow water, not much of the structure of the vessel has survived.  During both the 1967 and 1986 investigations, sections of the wooden vessel had survived to the exterior of the ballast mound when it was covered by the artillery. In 2015, only timbers found beneath were preserved. The ship settled upright but with a slight list to port, preserving the central construction features of the main mast step and lower, central hull.

Keel

The keel was not preserved to its full length, but a trough worn into the limestone seabed left an impression of the full length of the keel.  It was estimated to 12.6 m in original length, and the cross section measured 15-16.5 cm sided by 21 cm molded.

Stem

The keel was joined to the stem by a flat vertical scarf with a 30 cm table.  The curve of the stem was tangent to the keel.

Frames

There is a single master frame located beneath the expanded keelson section for the mainmast. The master frame is positioned before the mainmast mortise and only is the only frame with futtocks attached on the fore and aft faces of the floor timber. Three central frames (master frame and the neighboring fore and aft frames) have a room and space 30 cm that was smaller than the average 40 cm found throughout the rest of the hull.

The floors are averaged 16.5cm sided by 17.5 cm molded.  From an estimated total of 30 or 31 frames, it is not known how many were pre-assembled.

The futtocks are joined to the frames with dovetail scarfs. The trapezoidal mortises and tenons were wider on the lower side and narrower on top. Forward of the master frame, the futtocks were joined to the forward face of the floors, and aft of the master frame the futtocks were joined to the aft face of the floors.

Planking

The planking is 6 cm in thickness and 8-25 cm in width. Strakes were fastened to the frames with treenails and iron nails using an average pattern of 2:3 per frame/plank connection.

Caulking

No direct evidence of caulking material has been found so far. Multiple expeditions to the wreck site repeatedly identify lead strips that were either inserted between or fastened to cover plank seams.

Fasteners

Surviving evidence includes iron nails of various lengths, through bolts connecting the keel, frames, and keelson together, along with treenails.

Cargo

Little to no cargo survives, due to the rough conditions where the ship sank.

Personal Items

Only a knife with gold inlay was originally reported by the treasure salvors. The limited amount of artifacts found on the site could suggest that the crew was able to remove their possessions prior to sinking or that a lot of it was removed over the centuries.

Rigging

Fragments of the ship’s rigging were recovered by the treasure salvors in 1967. These fragments included three sections of chainplate with deadeye straps connected to three pieces of forged chain and bolt. Parts of a sheave and line associated with a fairlead were also recovered along

Reconstruction

Because the 2017 field season did not entail the disassembly of the hull remains, we need another field season to remove the ceiling planking and record the frame curves, in order to attempt a reconstruction of the ship’s hull.

Deliverables

Reports

The 2017 report is available here.

Videos

A number of videos were produced to illustrate the 2017 field season .

 

The 2018 Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Conference

The Highbourne Cay Symposium

A session on the 2017 Filed Season was presented at the 2018 Annual Conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology, in New Orleans.

 

Publications

Budsberg, N., Bendig, C., Meide, C., and Turner, S., 2016. “The Highbourne Shipwreck Revisited: 2015 Field Season and Preliminary Assessment” (forthcoming publication).

Keith, D. and Smith, R., 1983. “The Highborn Cay wreck: A report submitted to the Ministry of External Affairs concerning the sixteenth-century shipwreck at Highborn Cut, northern Exuma Islands, Nassau, Bahamas.

Keith, D., 1998. “Shipwrecks of the Explorers”, in G.F. Bass (ed.), Ships and Shipwrecks in the Americas. London: Thames and Hudson.

Oertling, T., 1987. “The Highborn Cay wreck: Limited excavations, September 1-19, 1986”. A proprietary report to the Ministry of Transport, Government of the Bahamas, BWI.

Oertling, T., 1988. “The Molasses Reef and Highborn Cay Wrecks: Two Early Sixteenth-century Hulls”, in J.P. Delgado (ed.), Proceedings from the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference.

Oertling, T., 1989. “The Highborn Cay Wreck: the 1986 field season” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 18.3: 244-253.

Oertling, T., 1996. Ships’ Bilge Pumps: A History of Their Development, 1500-1900. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Peterson, M., 1972. “Buried treasure beneath the Spanish main” Unesco Courrier, May: 23-27.

Peterson, M., 1972. “Traders and privateers across the Atlantic: 1492-1733” in A History of Seafaring based on underwater archaeology, ed. G. F. Bass. London: Thames and Hudson.

Peterson, M., 1973. “Les sites d’epaves des Americues” in L ‘archeologie subaquatique une discipline naissante, Unesco, Paris, 83-92.

Peterson, M., 1974. “Exploration of a l 61h-century Bahaman Shipwreck”, National Geographic Society Research Reports: I967 Projects, 231-42.

Smith, R., 1978. New World Shipwrecks 1500-1800: A Compendium of Sites Salvaged Or Excavated. Manuscript at Texas A&M University Library.

Smith, R. and Keith, D., 1986. “Ships of Discovery”, Archaeology, 39.2: 30-5.

Smith, R., Keith, D., Lakey, D., 1985. “The Highborn Cay Wreck: Further exploration of a 16th century Bahaman shipwreck” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 14.1: 63-72.