Teredo Worms and Hurricanes: The Challenge of 16th Century Shipbuilding

This Week’s Video: What Can We Learn from the Emanuel Point Shipwrecks?

One of the first artifacts recovered from the Emanuel Point II shipwreck as part of this summer’s field school was a section of lead hull sheathing. Such finds are considered diagnostic as they allow archaeologists to narrow down the probable timeframe for a site.

S. Marshall and M. Foster moments after recovering the artifact

As Keith Muckelroy, one of the pioneers of underwater archaeology, wrote, wooden ships in the pre-industrial age represented the height of global technology. Analogous to present-day spacecraft, these vessels were engineered to take explorers to the mysterious edges of the world and bring them back alive. Consequently, the evolution of ship technology reveals a sequence of experimentation and innovation. Behind every one of these nautical adaptations lay some environmental or cultural factor.

More dangerous to deepwater sailors than sea serpents or Sirens was a tiny creature of the family Teredinidae – the infamous teredo worm. Not actually a worm, but rather a bivalve mollusk, the teredos are known to ruin boats, pilings, and submerged trees, which they consume with the help of bacteria living in their gut. These termites of the sea slowly bore through wood, leaving behind critically weakened structures, honeycombed by trails of the “worm’s” ravenous appetite.

A teredo worm casing recovered from the dredge spoil

Christopher Columbus lost two ships to teredo worms during his voyages and his misfortune provided direct information of what ships could expect to encounter in the waters of the New World. Since teredo worms proved to be such a problem, shipbuilders designed numerous methods to combat them. Some vessels were supplied with lead and later copper sheathing to protect the hull, or ship’s body.

Finding lead sheathing on Emanuel Point II fits nicely with the techniques of shipbuilding that we know were used during the mid-sixteenth century. Additionally, it reminds us about the high stakes game that was being played during the Age of Discovery – failure or success in colonization and exploration could mean the difference between life and death for crews, or might shake the foundations of kingdoms. Shipwrights carefully responded to every new environmental challenge with a fluency of design that rivals the greatest human achievements.

A section of lead sheathing used on Emanuel Point II

Unfortunately, as Tristan de Luna learned, the environment works on both micro and macro levels. The lead sheathing that would once have protected these ships against the destructive tunneling of teredo worms was no match for the catastrophic force of the hurricane that would ultimately send them crashing beneath the waves.

Having slept for 450 years, the Emanuel Point ships, the pinnacle of 16th century technological adaptation now reduced to a feast for worms and archaeologists, offer us a window back in time and bear silent witness to the resourcefulness and tenacity of these early Spanish explorers and their dreams of a better life in a New World.

Contributors: S. Dominici, S. Hood, E. Nixon, B. Wells and C. Keohane

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