Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Quality Cargo Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Eric A. Powell

[image] Majolica ceramics were among the possible bribes found on the sixteenth-century shipwreck. (Courtesy John Wood) [LARGER IMAGE]

New finds off the rugged coast of northwest Scotland are shedding light on the Spanish Armada's failed effort to conquer Britain. Near the town of Kinlochbervie, archaeologists from St. Andrews University's Archaeological Diving Unit have found artifacts from a sixteenth-century ship scattered on rock outcrops up to 100 feet below the surface. Though no timbers of the ship remain, project head Martin Dean feels it was probably a galleon from the fleet Spain's Philip II dispatched to conquer England in 1588. So far his team has found anchors, wine jars, a cooking pot, four cannons, and a depth-sounding lead, all most likely from the ship's bow quarter.

Most intriguingly, the archaeologists have recovered pieces of 26 rare, high-quality Italian majolica jugs and plates. Considered Europe's finest ceramics at the time, some of the majolica is painted with mythological creatures found in frescoes that decorate Nero's Golden Palace in Rome. Clearly the high-end goods are not the kind of tableware normally found in a ship going to war. "This pottery is not meant to be used at sea," says John Wood, a local archaeologist. "They may have been carrying it for the victory celebration they were anticipating." The presence of so much valuable tableware also suggests the Spaniards might have intended the pieces as gifts, or bribes, to win over English officials after the conquest.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America