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ship's carving in the form of a merman

(Courtesy Jessica Berry)

Ship's carving in the form of a merman

ca. 1628

Slow-grown oak

Swash Channel, Britain, August 2010
(ship originally discovered 1990)

4.9 feet long by 9.8 inches wide

Undergoing conservation

By the late sixteenth century, European merchant ships began to replace explorers' ships on the world's oceans, marking the beginning of globalization and modern trade. Almost 400 years ago, one of these ship's owners, possibly the Dutch West India Company, took great care that its vessel was built to impress. They outfitted it not only with all the necessities for its long intercontinental voyage (including cannons to defend against piracy), but also decorated the ship's timbers with elaborate carvings including this merman prominently displayed on the ship's upper rail. But the as-yet-unidentified ship went down, probably on its maiden voyage. Although some of the ship and its cargo were salvaged soon after it sank, nearly half remained on the floor of the Swash Channel where archaeologists have been working for almost a decade to document, excavate, and eventually raise it. In addition to the merman, archaeologists have found several other carvings, all in the early Baroque style that became popular around 1600, including another merman, and the moustachioed and laurel-crowned man's face that once formed the head of the ship's rudder. According to underwater archaeologist Jessica Berry, expensive carvings like this are very rare, particularly on a mercantile ship—there are only two other examples from the United Kingdom—and are more likely to be found on state-funded vessels such as warships. The Swash wreck's carvings are also the oldest of their type known in the United Kingdom and among the earliest in the world.