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Portuguese Indiaman | Namibia
A newly discovered 16th-century Portuguese cargo ship carried almost 50 pounds of gold coins, many of which depict the Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella. (Courtesy Dieter Noli)

On April Fools' Day, a geologist at the Namdeb Diamond Corporation photographed something strange along newly exposed seabed off the coast of Namibia: mangled bronze pipes and heavy copper ingots. Namdeb had just constructed a massive earthen dike in the area, pushing back the Atlantic Ocean to search for diamonds on the sea floor. But when the company's consulting archaeologist, Dieter Noli, saw the unusual photos, he realized that the bronze pipes were really parts of 16th-century swivel guns--detritus, he suspected, from a shipwreck. He dropped everything, raced to the site, and swiftly convinced Namdeb to mount a major salvage excavation. "It was hugely exciting," says Noli.

Today, Noli and an international archaeological team are poring over finds from one of the most important shipwrecks ever found in Africa. The mystery vessel, says the team, is a type of 16th-century Portuguese cargo ship known as a nau. Designed to travel what was then the longest and most dangerous sea route in the world, from Portugal to India, the nau had to survive both the battering of the Atlantic Ocean and the seas off the African cape. "The challenges were as brutal and difficult as going to the moon in the 1960s," notes Filipe Castro, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University and an authority on Portuguese naus.

For decades, underwater treasure hunters have targeted some 200 wrecks of these famous ships, looting hulls for gold and other precious goods. Until the discovery of the Namibian wreck, archaeologists had never beaten treasure hunters to a nau site. Already Noli and his colleagues have identified a number of artifacts dating between 1525 and 1550--from early navigational instruments, known as astrolabes, to elephant tusks, gold coins, and 13 tons of hemispherical copper ingots.

The real payoff, however, will emerge in years to come, as archaeologists examine recovered timbers for clues to the ship's design, and iron concretions for trapped pollen, insects, and 16th-century DNA.

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