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Shipwreck Exploration

Shipwreck at Poompuhar

Poompuhar is situated on the east coast of India at the confluence of the river Kaveri and Bay of Bengal (11 8 55’ N and 79 51 52 E). Underwater exploration of this Early Chola Period (300 BC to AD 300) port town, was carried out during 1991 and 1993, mainly to locate the remains of the ancient city of Poompuhar.

The wreck-site lies at a depth of 18 m and is visible over an area approximately 30 X 15 m. The echogram indicates its height above the seabed to be 2.5 to 3 m. The wreck appears to be buried in coarse grained sediment. Results of the sidescan sonar survey carried out at the shipwreck location indicate two exposures separated by 5 to 6 m. The metal detector confirmed that part of the ship is buried beneath the sandy sea floor. The larger exposed part of the ship is covered with ballast of various sizes and barnacle growth. Metal detector signal showed that the length of the wreck-site is around 50 m, with a width of around 15 m.

A heavily encrusted cannon measuring 2.1 m in length was located close to the wreck. Two gun powder boxes and several unidentified objects were also recorded. Between the two parts of the wreck, two round circles about 1 m diameter were observed; these appears to be the hatches of cargo holds. The most informative findings were lead ingots recovered from the smaller portion of the wreck. Due to barnacle growth the ingots were cemented together and it proved extremely difficult to separate them. However, a few ingots were successfully retrieved for further study.

Based on their shape, size and imprints the ingots could be classified into three broad group.

Group 1: This group consists of eight boat-shaped ingots, 87-90 cm long, 15-18 cm wide and 6 cm thick. They are cast over a length of 46 cm with the inscription W:BLACKETT on one side. Each letter is 45 mm high and 5 to 7 mm deep. On their reverse the ingots are stamped with various symbols such as IXI, E, HI, WB, 7, A and LI. Three ingots in this group bear a heart symbol around four letters: V,I,C and E inscribed clockwise. Two ingots are stamped with the year 1791, while others with 1792. The average weight of the ingots is 68.5 kg.

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Group 2: The two ingots in this group are similar in shape to group 1 ingots but are of different size (86 cm long, 14 cm wide and 7 cm thick. These ingots are impressed with a symbol D with a crown above on one side. The height and breadth of the D is 6 cm. On the reverse side, stamps with various symbols such as a heart, and a smaller D with a crow are evident. The average weight of the ingots is 63 kg.

Group 3: The two ingots in this group are rectangular, 88 cm long, 14.5 cm wide and 5 cm thick. These do not bear any molded inscription or symbols, but a few characters are stamped on both the sides. These include H, IB and the VEIC heart symbol. The weight of each ingot is 65.8 kg. A copper alloy object was another important artefact recovered from the site. It has two arms 1.27 m long with seven holes in each arm. This rudder gudgeon was recovered along with the lower part of the rudder, also made of copper alloy as were ten nail. These were lying about 10 m distant from the exposed portion of the wreck. The 200 hundred years old wreck is remarkably preserved and merits further investigation. From the survey the wreck appears to be of moderate size and 50 m long. The cannon and gunpowder boxes adjacent to the wreck do not exclude a cargo vessel as these carried an armament in this period. While its location suggests Danish nationality it is possible it belonged to another East India Company. The discovery of the Poompuhar wreck is an important event in Indian marine archaeology.

A highly significant achievement of Poompuhar underwater exploration is the discovery of a large shipwreck which carried a huge quantity of lead ingots dated 1791 and 1792 A.D. and inscribed W. BLACKETT which must be name of the company manufacturing or dealing in lead ingots. Poompuhar wreck seems to have belonged to the Dutch rulers in India and might have sunk during a war against the French in 1792-93 as indicated by a few lead ingots from the wreck. Two of them bear the symbols of a crown below which is the letter’D’. This symbol of crown over ‘D’ is engraved on the coins issued by the Dutch in India. The further exploration was carried out at shipwreck in 1997. Extensive airlift operation suggest that ship is wooden hulled. The surface wooden planks are badly damaged due to wood borers but lower planks are in better condition. The ship seems to have belonged to the Dutch rulers in India and might have sunk during a war against the French in 1792-1993 as suggested by a few local people. But it seems that Denmark and Holland never produced lead, so one has to see the origin of lead in other western countries. Because in 17th century to 19th century England was the largest exporter of lead in the east.


Shipwrecks in Lakshadweep waters

The Lakshadweep group of islands lies in the Arabian Sea between 8 and 12 30’ N Latitude and 71 and 74 E longitude. These are ideally located on the transoceanic route between West Asia and North Africa on the one side and south Asia and Sri Lanka on the other. Prior to opening of Suez Canal these island served landmarks in the Arabian sea for navigators. The geographical location of these islands invited many ships passing through this region and served as a transit point between the West and East. The marine records show that several ships were lost here. Marine archaeological explorations in 1994 revealed three shipwrecks near Minicoy island of Lakshadeep. The detail description of each wrecks are given below.

Underwater exploration was undertaken at the eastern part of Minicoy Island. Being the southernmost island of the union territory of Lakshadweep, Minicoy is on the international sea route. There are several wrecks around Minicoy Island as mentioned by the local residents of the area. During the present exploration three wrecks were found, of which two were explored. Small parts of the shipwrecks were visible above water.

Shipwreck-I This is the southernmost wreck so far located. The ship is lying about 200m from the shore. The water depth at this site changes rapidly from 4 to 15m. The ship sank parallel to the shore and tilted towards the deeper water. Its approximate length is 100m and beam about 20m. It is a steam-engine ship, but boilers were not seen. The steel-hulled wreck is in a good condition, but the plating is corroded and fragmented. The hull frames are well preserved and scattered to both starboard and port. Some also lie away from the site. The distance between two frames was about 70cm and the moulding about 20cm. The wreck rests on the slope, hence the starboard frames are more disturbed than the port ones.

The engine consists of three vertical cylinders with a heavy flywheel. The engine survives to a height of about 3m excluding the flywheel. The cylinder blocks are formed of several iron castings bolted together with machined wrought-iron bolts or studs, fastened with wrought-iron nuts. The width of the flywheel is 1.40 m and its diameter 4.5m. It is still attached to the shaft which is well preserved. Its length as far as the propeller is 27 m with four square bearings at a distance of 5m. The propeller, too, is in good condition and all four blades can be seen. The length of each blade is about 80cm with a maximum breadth of about 35cm and the material appears to be brass alloy. One of the most interesting features is the chain which connects the wreck to the anchor lying in deeper water. The visible length of chain is over 100 m, with links about 30cm long and in good condition.

Seven brass and one lead object were retrieved. (1). Port-hole octagonal in shape with a maximum opening of 25cm. The glass is 13cm in diameter. The sides measure 109mm, 102mm, 99mm and 102mm. (2). J-Bolt length 26cm and diameter 18mm. (3). Flange only half has survived. Thickness 10mm and width is 58mm. (4). Frame of Light Indicator of Ship: This is 108mm square with holes in each corner. Roman letters can be read as L.A.1. (5) A Flat bar 325mm long, 62mm wide and 10mm thick. A wooden plank with 4 nails was fixed over this bar. (6) Flat bar 56 cm long with 4 perforations. Above this bar a wooden plank was also fixed. (7) Heavy bar 1.07m long 65mm wide and 30mm thick. It is curved in the centre with a groove on the reverse. On the obverse there are oral holes at intervals of 7 to 8cm. This may be a rudder pintle. (8) Lead object: thin flat bar 30cm long and 5cm wide.

Shipwreck II

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This wreck is lying about 200 m south of the first wreck and perpendicular to the shore. It is also lies in 4 to 15m of water. It is estimated to be over 100m long. The boilers and engine parts are well preserved. The ship is tilted towards the starboard and in shape, size and type is similar to Wreck-I. The aft portion of the ship has fallen in deeper water. The hull is heavily corroded in most places. A few better preserved parts of the hull suggest that the plating was about 5cm thick. Frames are scattered, but some are still attached and show that the ship lacked deadrise. This was a flat bottom ship. The flywheel cannot be seen. The total height of the engine is about 4 m and may be better preserved because cargo is well preserved. The propeller shaft is broken into two. A small part is attached to the engine but the longer part along with the propeller broke and slipped down the slope. Two huge boilers were noticed; they are cylindrical airtight boxes about 5m in height and 2m in diameter.

This preliminary exploration yielded very encouraging results with the discovery of two steam-engine wrecks. They are well preserved and worthy of further exploration. The vessels were probably cargo ships. Although the identification of the ships is not possible at present, further exploration may provide important clues. Their exploration is not only important for studying the causes of wreck, the country the ship belonged to and the type but also the history of shipbuilding technology as it was the steam-engine ships which played a vital role in the development of international ocean trade and commerce.

The onshore explorations of Lakshadweep revealed the presence of significant potsherds of red ware, red-polished ware,dull ware, red and black ware ad buff ware from Kavaratti, Androth and Amini. Two Buddha heads (one 95 cm and the other 55 cm high) carved out of locally available coral rock found earlier by inhabitants of Androth, were examined and assigned to the 6 th-7th Century AD. The presence of red polished ware suggests the earliest habitation on these islands to 100-500 AD.

Four Shipwrecks located in Lakshadweep waters one was at the reef of Suheli par and three at Minicoy. Two shipwrecks explored a water depth of 4-15 is about 100 m long. In one of them the steam engine is intact with a 27 m long shaft attached between engine and propeller blade. An anchor chain more than 100m long was also observed at a depth of about 15 m. In the other wreck the engine is disintegrated, however two boilers can be clearly noticed.


Shipwrecks in Goa waters

The Marine Archaeology Centre of National Institute of Oceanography [NIO] has recently carried out exploration in search of shipwrecks in Goa waters. The explorations has brought to light three shipwrecks at Sunchi reef, St.George reef and Baga waters.

The marine archaeological exploration at Sunchi reef, near Amee shoal, around 2 km away from Marmagoa port has revealed the remains of a shipwreck in 3 to 9 m water depth. A number of dressed granite blocks, four cannons, each one of 2 m length, a cast iron cannon ball, pieces of glass bottle and pottery are the important findings. All the cannons are lying on the underwater rock. Granite blocks and cannons are overgrown with barnacles and other sea organism. Two cannons are lying in the slanting position facing towards the seabed whereas other two are lying parallel to the seabed.

The underwater exploration on the eastern side of St.George reef revealed the remains of a shipwreck in 15 m water depth containing various types of scattered terracotta artifacts such as bricks, roofing, wall fixing and flooring tiles at times inscribed "BASELMISSION TILE WORKS 1865" and a number of household decorative materials. The timber of the ship is also noticed in between the rocks. It seems that the ill-fated vessel was coming either to Goa or Mumbai. Baselmission company had the tile factories in the Mangalore region of Karnataka. The company also exported the products to East Africa, Aden, Basara, Australia and Southeast Asian countries.

The underwater metal detector survey followed by diving in Baga waters revealed a steel hulled wreck in 5 to 6 m water depth opposite to the seminary. The wreck is buried in the sediment and partly visible.

The rivers of Goa bring tons of load of sediment specially due to mining activity, during SW monsoon and discharge in the sea. The movement of sediment reduces the visibility to almost nil. The fair weather period, suitable for underwater exploration is also limited between November to February. Sometimes the jellyfishes hamper the diving so much that diving has to be abandoned practically. The pleasure diving tourists in the area may also be tempted to lift some important antiquity for curiosity or souvenir purpose.

Marine records are the primary sources for the study of shipwrecks. Hence, the Portuguese marine records which are housed in Goa State Archives, Panaji, or even in Lisbon may have some clues or some information on the ships lost in Goa waters which may encourage further underwater survey.

The maritime history of Goa, specially in recent past was quite interesting and dynamic, triggering dramatic development. Number of ancient ports must have played critical role in development of Goa in last 2 - 3 centuries. The remains of both, port and shipwrecks may bring to light the missing link with known history. The National Institute of Oceanography remains committed to carry on torch further for the cause. Submerged cities and sunken ships are precious cultural heritage which need to be explored and preserved for posterity. Every ship is an epitome of the society which built it.

A wreck at Goa has been located which is more than 60 m long with a steel hulled cargo vessel with cabin, hatch, bridge and accommodation, it is more than 60 m long. One more historical shipwreck was discovered off Mormugao with large and dressed granite blocks, a cannon and an iron anchor.