A Time Capsule at the Bottom of the Sea

A stunning collection of unique objects was unearthed in 2014 from a 17th-century shipwreck, located in the Wadden Sea, The Netherlands. In the spring of 2016, this discovery was brought to light, swiftly attracting worldwide attention and hypotheses about the origins of the objects. One year later, several funded projects are starting to engage into the extensive study of this collection.

In 2014, a group of sport divers discovered a large number of archaeological objects in the wreck of a ship (registration number BZN17) that had sunk in the middle of the 17th century, in the Wadden Sea, nearby the island of Texel, in the north of the Netherlands. Known as the Texel Road, this is a well-known historical and archaeological area, where many other ships are sunk. Under the responsibility of the Province of North-Holland, the objects were examined by experts from the University of Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE), who soon realized their exceptional quality and value. Among wooden artefacts and pottery, several fine worked silver objects and leather book covers with engraved coats of arms (possibly related to the British royal House of Stuart) were found.  However, the most spectacular part of this finding was the considerable number of textiles encountered.

 

Top - leather book cover with engraved coat of arms; left bottom - gilded silver beaker; centre bottom - silk fragment from interior textile; right bottom - silver pomanders or large buttons. Photo credit - Maarten Roeper (UvA).

A stunning finding

Captured in a time capsule for centuries, the textiles represent a unique example of 17th-century fashion, comprising over 150 fragments, including costumes, parts of costumes and interior textiles. Attention has been particularly given to a complete dress and a heavily decorated velvet pouch, both exhibited in Kaap Skil museum in 2016. Buried for centuries, the textiles are in remarkably good condition, which might be related to the archaeological environment and the high quality of the fabrics. Indeed, these are almost entirely made of silk, with many examples exhibiting a well-preserved deep red colour, as well as embroidered or woven metal threads. It is worth noting that surviving archaeological maritime silk is extremely rare, which makes this finding even more spectacular.

In the spring of 2016, the discovery of this collection was brought to light, rapidly catching the attention of international newspapers and renowned scientific magazines, such as National Geographic. This triggered the imagination of archaeologists, historians, curators, conservation scientists and general public all over the world, bringing up many hypotheses about the origins of the objects.

 

Top right - knitted silk stockings; top centre - collar with embroidered metal thread; top right - silk brocade bodice; middle left - velvet purse richly with embroidered metal thread; bottom left - long piled fragment from circular cloak. Photo credit - Maarten Roeper and Annelena de Groot (UvA).

Diving into the collection

The textile collection has been studied since the end of 2015, by a team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Maarten van Bommel, from the Department of Conservation and Restoration, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam (C&R-UvA). In early 2016, two conservator trainees at the C&R-UvA, Marijke de Bruyne and Sjoukje Telleman, inventoried the entire collection of textile fragments, under the supervision of textile lecturer Emmy de Groot and van Bommel.

To understand the origin and function of the textiles, as well as their state of conservation for future preservation strategies, it was important to characterize their materials. Hence, 12 textiles were chemically and physically analysed in a pilot project funded by the Province of North-Holland, and carried out between the C&R-UvA and the RCE. This study was performed by van Bommel, Ana Serrano (author of this article) and Ineke Joosten (RCE):

- With UHPLC-PDA (ultra-high performance liquid chromatography - diode array detector), Serrano and van Bommel were able to identify the colours of the textiles, which mostly presented deep red shades. Not surprisingly, the expensive American cochineal and kermes insect red dyes were attributed as the main colorants on the textiles. Besides these, roots of madder (a less valuable source of red dye) were often found mixed with the insect dyes or in textile parts that are not directly visible on the costumes.

- With SEM-EDX (scanning electron microscope - energy dispersive x-ray spectrometer), Serrano and Joosten attested that most fibres preserved their flexibility; although some showed evidence of microorganism attack, whereas those from fabrics of lower quality (e.g. lining) were more friable. Silver sulphide crystals (corrosion products of silver) were observed on the silver metal threads, as well as gold on a few of them. This indicates that they were probably gilded but, due to the corrosion of the silver, most gold could have been lost in the maritime environment.

These analytical results undoubtedly came to prove that a very rich finding was unearthed. Hence, it became of upmost importance to appraise the most suitable solutions to prolong its lifetime in museum storage and exhibition conditions.

 

From the bottom of the sea to the display case

With new funding from the Province of North-Holland, the C&R-UvA is, at the moment, working in collaboration with the RCE and the Rijksmuseum on a detailed scientific research, to evaluate the response of silk to common deterioration parameters in a museum environment: temperature, relative humidity, light and oxygen.

A team of researchers (van Bommel, Serrano and Joosten, but also Agnes Brokerhof, Luc Megens and Bart Ankersmit from the RCE) is currently comparing silk aged in the laboratory – done by combining the above-mentioned deterioration parameters – with the archaeological silk fragments, at their structural and molecular levels, using several analytical techniques. Two bachelor students in chemistry, Indradevi Mellema (UvA) and Jennifer van der Schaft (Hogeschool van Arnhem en Nijmegen) have worked with some of these techniques as well. Mellema (supervised by Serrano and van Bommel) developed a UHPLC-PDA-fluorescence method to characterize changes in the molecular composition of silk, while van der Schaft (supervised by Megens and co-supervised by Serrano) assessed changes in the structure of silk, with x-ray diffraction (XRD) and fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR).

The results of this research will be instrumental to appraise the state of conservation of the archaeological textiles, in relation to the laboratory-aged silk. This will then help to find the best way to continue preserving this valuable collection, after centuries of burial protection at the bottom of the sea. Hence, once in museum storage and display cases, the lifetime of the textiles can be prolonged by controlling the temperature, the humidity, the light and even the oxygen levels (anoxic environment), while allowing general and specialized public to appreciate the craftsmanship of 17th-century fashion. From this point on, a team of researchers (led by Maurice Aalders) from the the Academisch Medisch Centrum will be working closely with the UvA, to apply imaging techniques for monitoring the preservation of the textiles.

Moreover, and parallel to this project, conservator trainees at the C&R-UvA supervised by de Groot, undertook specific case studies, inside the collection. Some of these studies aimed at understanding the original tridimensionality of some of the objects and how they were worn; while others mainly focused on the condition of the objects and their conservation treatment.

 

Top - velvet kaftan; centre - fragment of animal knotted-pile carpet; bottom - detail of embroidered interior textile. Photo credit - Maarten Roeper, Sjoukje Telleman and Marijke de Bruyne (UvA).

On the path to the origins

Based on the book covers with engraved coats of arms in the collection, cultural historians Helmer Helmers (University of Amsterdam) and Nadine Akkerman (University of Leiden) hypothesized in 2016 that the group of objects could have belonged to a Scottish lady-in-waiting. With funding from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), they aim now at unveiling the historical context behind the shipwreck and its valuable contents, with the help of two postdocs. Their co-operation with researchers of materiality will further understanding of how the history of Anglo-Dutch mobility and displacement of exile affected material culture, and how individual and group identities were shaped through that culture on both sides of the Channel.

However, there may be other connections that lead the finding towards a more eastern origin as well. In February 2017, the Province of North Holland supported the examination of the collection by Jenny Tiramani and other experts from the School of Historical Dress. Based on their observations on the construction of the textiles, they could identify, among the fragments of European costumes and interior textiles, two kaftans and (probably) two interior textiles, from Ottoman origin. One of the kaftans could actually have been produced in the textile workshops of Ottoman-occupied Eastern European territories. This kaftan has been shortly exhibited at the Kaap Skil museum and enthusiastically reported by the Dutch media.

Moreover, in the beginning of 2017, Kaap Skil displayed another intriguing object retrieved from the shipwreck: the fragments of what was once an intricate woollen knotted-pile carpet. Based on its composition, colour palette and weaving structure, researcher Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis could attribute it to a mid-17th-century Persian or north(western) Indian origin. A more detailed Master thesis on this object by UvA student Lieke Boerstra further indicated that this might be in fact produced in the 16th or early 17th century in Eastern Persia. Serrano could further support these interpretations, by analysing with UHPLC-PDA its red background. The analysis pointed out that this red was obtained with lac dye, a red insect that was widely used in 16th- and 17th-century Iranian carpet production.

Besides these Ottoman and Persian unique objects, archaeologist Arent Vos, who is assessing the non-textile objects and the archaeological context of the wreck, has reported that a considerable number of boxes containing mastic and logs of boxwood were found in the shipwreck as well. These were likely commercial cargoes, which source and destination remain incognitos. Even so, it is worth noting the original provenances of these products. Boxwood was obtained from buxus trees growing in Southern and Western Europe, and had a varied applicability, due to its flexibility. Mastic is a plant resin that was used in several medicinal applications, and it has been traditionally produced in the Greek island of Chios, which in the 17th century, was part of the Ottoman Empire.

 

 

The puzzling origins and the many questions related to this stunning collection of unique objects, and the ship that carried them, is still under investigation and will possibly be for years to come, thanks to the amazing team gathered by Prof. Dr. van Bommel. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to claim at this point that this is a rare and cherished finding that deserves global recognition and proper preservation for future generations. The return to the wreck by a professional team of archaeologists to retrieve any remaining objects is right now an urgent matter that requires further attention and sponsorship. Indeed, moving tides are exposing the ship, which is putting at risk the preservation of what is left. This is well illustrated by a recently published Youtube video, made by the Province of North-Holland.

The author of this article, Ana Serrano, has been employed by the UvA as a postdoc researcher for this project, through the generous funding of the Province of North Holland. She has been involved in the material-technical characterization of the archaeological textile fragments, as well as in the research on silk degradation. She has also contributed with historical insights about the origins of the finding, along with a team of archaeologists, historians and science conservators.

FURTHER READING

Bommel, M. V., Serrano, A., Joosten, I., 2016, “De textielcollectie BZN17 chemisch ontsloten, het eerste onderzoek naar de gebruikte materialen in het textiel”, Archeologisch Kroniek van Noord Holland, in press.
Hartkamp-Jonxis, E., Smit, H., 2016, “(Re-)Surfaced: an oriental carpet from circa 1640-1650”, RKD Bulletin, 1, pp. 36-43.