The St. John's Bahamas wreck is what remains of a mid-16th century Spanish sailing ship thought to be the Santa Clara, (1564). It is proving to be one of the richest archaeological sources for examining the ways in which Europeans colonized the Americas. Portions of the ship itself have been found in association with artifacts that reflect the lifestyles of those onboard, and their experience in the New World.
This vessel met its fate in 5 meters of water on the southwestern edge of the Little Bahamas Bank, approximately 37 kilometers north-northwest of West End, Grand Bahamas Island. This area is located along the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream current as it passes between Florida and the Bahamas Islands.
The site was discovered in July of 1991 by the Florida-based marine salvage corporation St. John's Expeditions during their survey of an area leased to them by the Bahamian government for the right to explore the remains of sunken ships. When this particular site was discovered, archaeologists and historians familiar with colonial-era ships and shipping, including a representative from the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society (MFMHS), were consulted for an assessment of the wreck. All concluded that the site dated from the 16th century and could work toward a better understanding of the early colonization of the Americas.
In December of 1991, after exploring a variety of options for their discovery, St. John's Expeditions made the decision to ally with the MFMHS to conduct an archaeological examination of the wreck. Under the agreement, all materials from the site that are apportioned to St. John's Expeditions by the Bahamas will be housed at the Key West facility as a permanent collection open to both the public and interested researchers. To ensure that it would be a structured study, an excavation plan was formulated around a list of wide-ranging questions about the ship. The wreck has since been examined through a system based on one-square-meter units, from which all wreck-related materials are recorded. The unusual alliance, which has allowed the wreck to pass from the private realm to the public, continues to thrive. Since its formation, five periods of excavation have been conducted, and it is these expeditions that have been the basis for the insight into the long-lost ship, and the era which it represents.
The data collected during the excavation of over 200 units has made it evident that most of what remains of this ship and its contents has been preserved in an undisturbed context. In general, artifacts appear to have moved little since their initial deposition, and are able to provide significant insight to the internal arrangements and loading practices used onboard the ship. The location of the galley, the stowage strategies for various classes of arms and artillery, as well as the storage of various supplies, are being revealed. Lamentably, the wreck was slightly damaged during earlier, undocumented explorations by treasure hunters, most significantly to areas of the lower hull structure where the ballast is concentrated most heavily. Fortunately, the absence of a "treasure" on the site has kept the incentive for any such exploration at a low level, and can help to account for the relative lack of disturbance that has been observed.
The wooden remains of the ship itself are quite fragile. They are generally found in their original context, but are quite soft and abraded from their long immersion. This structure is being recorded through drawings and photographs before being reburied as found. What has been examined is, for the most part, exterior hull planking which is sporadically intersected by badly degraded framing components. These are joined by combinations of iron fasteners and wooden dowels. Additionally, a small section of what is thought to be the keel, or some closely related component, has been found at the western edge of the site. The contiguous structure that has been encountered, runs a length of 12.9 meters. The current interpretation of the evidence shows the vessel to have rolled onto its starboard side. It is hoped that by combining additional field data with the known structure, stone ballast, rigging components, and individual fasteners, enough information will be provided to determine the original size and design of the ship.
Over one thousand individually tagged artifacts have been recovered. In addition, thousands of earthenware olive jar body sherds and hundreds of iron spikes and iron barrel hoop fragments have been recorded on a per-unit basis. The large and varied collection shows the ship to have been a floating community with the complex infrastructure necessary to ensure a successful voyage. When the site is placed in a firm context, these items should become a basic reference point for anyone interested in early-colonial maritime affairs, or the mechanics of Spanish-America. Weapons, including an artillery battery of three bombardetas and eight versos, nine crossbows, swords, and pole arms, provided the crew with a variety of military options. The many types of ceramics seen from this site reflect not only various functional categories, such as tableware, drug containers and those for food storage and preparation, but the changing aesthetic tastes of colonial Spain, and trading patterns of the time. The remains of over one hundred olive jars, along with various Spanish and Italian majolicas, a variety of lead-glazed wares, brown Cologne stoneware, unglazed bizcocho wares and a burnished ceramic of Aztec origin, form the major part of this group. Other, miscellaneous artifacts include iron rigging components, pewterware, a horseshoe, glass vials, a bronze enema syringe, lead cloth seals, carpenter's tools, clay pipe fragments, an iron helmet, and the femur of a young crocodilian. Significantly, the combination of assayers' marks stamped on two small silver coins, which were minted in Mexico City, could have been found on the ship only if it had sailed sometime after 1554. A small, stamped nugget of Peruvian silver has also been recovered. It is quite interesting to note that no obvious cargo has been identified from the site.
It is safe to say that this ship wrecked within a decade or two after 1555, based on not only the temporal evidence provided by the coins, but a large collection of medieval artifacts, which were nearing the end of their popularity. The presence of a variety of American goods indicates it had made contact somewhere in the New World. Significantly, the wreck is located along the edge of the northward flowing gulf stream current; the major maritime "highway" for the return voyage in the circular Carrera de Indias. Most likely this ship was an intercontinental trader, serving to transport not only people and goods, but ideas and cultures to places where they could be adapted and newly recombined.
Archaeology focuses the measure of cultural change through material remains, and the evidence provided by this site is strong. Spanish, Italian, German and Aztec ceramics have been discovered, as well as pewterware most likely to be of English origin. European adaptation to the American practice of smoking tobacco is seen. New World silver in the pockets of sailors was destined to be spent in European ports. The presence on the ship of the Old world domesticated animals horse, pig and cow shows, that by this time, these creatures were making their mark on both sides of the Atlantic. A small crocodilian was, for whatever reason, being taken to Spain. It is clear that the concept of a material, if not cultural, "melting pot" is a valid one in the Americas, even for this early period of colonization.
John Browning, owner of Florida-based marine salvage corporation St. John’s Expeditions who discovered the wreck in July 1991, holding artifacts recovered at the site.
As of this writing, the St. John's Bahamas shipwreck project is very much a work in progress. The conservation and analysis of recovered materials is well underway, but far from complete. As artifacts are being cleaned, recorded and researched, work is being done in Spanish archives to assemble lists of ships lost in the area of the Little Bahama bank during the third-quarter of the sixteenth century, as well as to locate their manifests. These will be compared against the archaeological evidence to identify the wreck. Progress reports are being written. A newly created Interment site will soon feature these, making them easily available around the world. Bi-monthly updates are provided to members of the MFMHS through a newsletter. Currently, portions of the collection are on display in the Key West museum, and the remainder is available for study by appointment. The MFMHS has a strong commitment to public education, and plans are to create a large touring exhibition that will take the story of this ship to places where marine archaeology and shipwrecks are unusual concepts. A major written analysis will coincide with the display. Ultimately, the materials will be permanently housed in both the Bahamas and Key West.
Through large amounts of cooperation, patience, and desire, an important historical and archaeological resource is being allowed to flourish, revealing to us its long-held story. Lessons are being learned from the study of this wreck, but everyone involved is still very much "in school," and will probably remain so for the next few years. At the end of this period, when the story is told, it can be closely compared with related cultural resources, and prevailing theories confirmed, refuted and refined to, some day soon, reach the point where we can finally stop repeating the mantra "we just don't know enough about these wrecks."