Archaeologists identify sunken 1681 Spanish shipwreck off Panamanian coast

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
May 12, 2015

More than three years after uncovering a shipwreck buried in the sand off the Caribbean coast of Panama near the mouth of the Chagres River, ongoing analysis and interpretation has led archaeologists to identify the shipwreck as Nuestra Señora de Encarnación

A colonial Spanish nao, or merchant ship, Encarnación was one of several ships that sank in 1681 when a storm engulfed the Tierra Firme fleet en route to Portobelo, Panama from Cartagena, Colombia. Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, research faculty and chief underwater archaeologist with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, leads the research team.

"This truly is an exciting and intriguing shipwreck," said Hanselmann. "The site basically consists of the entire lower portion of the ship’s hull and cargo in the hold, which includes a wide variety of artifacts: wooden barrels, over 100 wooden boxes containing sword blades, scissors, mule shoes, nails, ceramics, and other material culture, such as lead seals that are all that remain of perishable cargo."

"Very few Spanish merchant naos have ever been found, making this one an extraordinarily significant find because it is so well preserved,” explained project archaeologist Melanie Damour. "In addition to what we can learn from the artifacts, the hull remains will inform us about Old World ship construction techniques using New World materials."

Archival research in Seville, Spain, conducted by project historian Jose Espinosa of the Universidad del Norte, provided the information that the vessel was originally constructed in Veracruz, Mexico. The ship’s remains shed light on the 17th century world and the economic and political interactions between the Spanish colonies and those that sought access to those resources. "

"The presence of mule shoes for example, suggests a direct link to the overland trade routes used by the Spanish Crown where goods and wealth from places such as Peru were carried through the Isthmus of Panamá, loaded onto ships, and carried back to fill the crown’s coffers," said project archaeologist and Texas State alum Christopher Horrell.

The artifacts excavated from the site and analyzed in the conservation lab helped the archaeologists gain further understanding of the ship’s identity, origin and function, especially in comparison with what has, and has not, been found on land.

"Preliminary surveys on the shores adjacent to the wreck, near the imposing fortress of San Lorenzo, have revealed that erosion and wave action have heavily altered the coastline in the last 300 years, submerging much of the Colonial era archaeological features of the nearby coastal settlements," said Tomas Mendizabal, Panamanian co-director of the project.

The archaeological sites documented during this project and all of the artifacts recovered belong to the country of Panama. The artifacts are currently undergoing conservation treatment and further analysis in the laboratory at Patronato Panamá Viejo, the non-profit organization that manages the archaeological site of the original location of Panama City and its associated on-site museum.

The remains of Encarnación were found during an overall study of the region and the ongoing search for five ships that the infamous Captain Henry Morgan lost en route to sacking Panama City in 1671.  In 2010, the team recovered and analyzed guns that were lost overboard when Morgan’s ships ran aground. 

"The waters surrounding the mouth of the Chagres River and further along the Caribbean coast of Panama hold more than 500 years of storied maritime history," Hanselmann explained. "The search for Morgan’s lost ships will continue and who knows what else we will discover along the way!"

Funding for the current efforts of the expedition has been provided by the Captain Morgan Rum Company, the Way Family Philanthropic Foundation, and the Travel Channel’s Expedition Unknown series. Permits were provided by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura and the Dirección Nacional de Patrimonio Histórico.

About The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University was named following a generous gift from The Meadows Foundation in August 2012. The Meadows Center incorporates a multi-disciplinary focus on research, education, stewardship and management of aquatic resources, including underwater cultural heritage.