Playa Damas Shipwreck
Filipe Castro and Carlos Fitzgerald
In July 2003 the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University (INA) was invited by the media group Spiegel to consider the complete excavation of a shipwreck at Playa Damas, located near Nombre de Dios, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. The media had announced, based on some evidence not confirmed by archaeological analysis, that this shipwreck was thought to be Columbus’ Vizcaína, a small 50 ton caravel lost near Portobelo, during his fourth voyage, in 1503.
On September 2003 a team from Texas A&M’s INA visited the site and started the preparation of the logistics for the full excavation of the Playa Damas shipwreck. The project was, however, handed to a treasure hunting company and the Playa Damas shipwreck stands as yet another Spanish shipwreck destroyed by treasure hunters forever.
At the time of its find, there were more than 70 known shipwrecks of Iberian ships around the world, all dating to the period of Iberia’s maritime expansion. Only a handful of these and other, found during the last decade, have been excavated by archaeologists, and even less published. The majority has been totally or partially destroyed by treasure hunters or looted by sport divers.
As a result, the ships of the 16th century are largely unknown to us. We would like to know how their were conceived, designed, and built, how were the living spaces divided, the cargoes stored, and the stores managed. We would like to know how did they perform under sail, how sturdy their hulls were, and how versatile their rigging arrangements were. But hull remains are not appealing to treasure hunter’s sponsors, don’t have a market value, and don’t make it into auction catalogues, the only publications produced by treasure hunters.
Most artifact collections have been destroyed, except for the artifacts with a market value, which are typically sold at auction and scattered forever into private collections where they remain off-limits to the scholarly world.
Sometimes looking for sunken treasures, other times just using the shipwrecks as a pretext to raise money from credulous investors, treasure hunters have destroyed forever the majority of these shipwrecks.
The preliminary study of this shipwreck was started by the authors, but interrupted when the Panamanian government gave the salvage rights to a treasure hunting company.
Story of the Ship
Not much is known about this ship. It was heavily armed and dated to the second quarter of the 15th century. At the time of its find, the treasure hunters proposed the idea that this might be the Vizcaina, lost by Christopher Columbus near Nombre de Dios.
The large collection of guns places this vessel in the 16th century, however, and the C14 dating corroborated this assumption.
We do not have information about the loss of such a ship.
This site was found in s.
Site Formation Process
Sunk in very shallow water, sometime during the first decades of the 16th century, this ship was probably salvaged soon after its loss. When it was first found by treasure hunters, the only artifacts left were the heavy iron guns and anchors that were probably stored in the holds and were quickly buried in the sand.
The shipwreck lay at a depth of about 4.5 m (15 ft.) and the site consisted of a ballast pile with an area of about 60 m2, roughly 10 by 6 meters, with three large anchors and an important number of iron guns, at least 12. A portion of the hull was untouched, protected under the ballast pile. The planking was 6 cm thick, frames were 17 to 18 cm square in section, and stringers were 27 x 7 cm. All these scantlings, the number of guns, and the size of the anchors indicated a ship larger than the 50-ton Vizcaína.
A new sample of timber – this time from an oak futtock – was taken and dated. This sample produced a radiocarbon date of 1530-1550, compatible with the previous one, since hull planks were traditionally cut from much larger trees than futtocks, and the sample from the planking may have corresponded to an inner portion of the tree. Reutilization of timber cannot be excluded as another explanation for the early dating of these samples. Carbon dates from the lining of a shard of an olive jar also yielded compatible dates: 1450-1530.
Brinkbaumer, Klaus, and Clemens Hoeges, 2004. “Die letze Reise des Columbus (I)“, in Der Spiegel, No. 25, 14.Jun.
Brinkbaumer, Klaus, and Clemens Hoeges, 2004. “Die letze Reise des Columbus (II)“, in Der Spiegel, No. 26, 21.Jun.
Brinkbaumer, Klaus, and Clemens Hoeges, 2004. Die letzte Reise, Der Fall Christoph Columbus, München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.
Castro, Filipe, Playa Damas Project – Artifact Inventory – ShipLab Report 9. 2005. On file in Nautical Archaeological Program Library, Texas A&M University.
Castro, Filipe, Playa Damas Project – Preliminary Report submitted to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology Archaeological Committee, 2004.
Castro, F., and Fitzgerald, C., 2006. “The Playa Damas Shipwreck, an early 16th-Century Shipwreck in Panama,” in Robert Grenier, David Nutley and Ian Cochran, Underwater Cultural Heritage at Risk: Managing Natural and Human Impacts, Heritage at Risk – Special Edition, Paris: UNESCO, 38-41.