In 1998, a sunken 16th-century Portuguese ship was discovered off the coast of Oman. Nearly two decades later, excavations have revealed that the vessel was likely once part of famed explorer Vasco da Gama’s fleet of ships, National Geographic reports. Experts believe the vessel is the Esmeralda, a boat that accompanied da Gama’s second trip to India and capsized during a thunderstorm in May 1503.

Between the mid-15th and 17th centuries, European sailors embarked on an unprecedented era of nautical exploration. Since Egypt’s Muslim rulers controlled access to India’s spice markets via the Red Sea, traders tried to find a western route to the subcontinent. Today, this period is referred to as the Age of Exploration. In 1498, da Gama became one of the period's most famous figures when he sailed around Africa, crossed through the Indian Ocean, and docked in southern India. The Portuguese explorer became the first European to travel to India by the Atlantic Ocean, and he also paved the way for maritime trade between Europe and Asia.

Da Gama embarked on a second voyage to India in 1502. He traveled with a fleet of 20 ships, and left five of them behind to watch over the Portuguese factories that dotted India’s southwest coast. The squadron was presided over by da Gama’s uncle, Vincente Sodré, who captained the Esmeralda.

Instead of keeping an eye Portugal’s economic interests, Sodré and his squadron hit the neighboring seas and began plundering Arab ships. In 1503, the Esmeralda and its crew docked off the coast of Al Hallaniyah, an island near the coast of southern Oman. A violent storm struck, and the Esmeralda and its crew met a watery grave.

The ship sat undiscovered until 1998, when the Oman government authorized a two-man reconnaissance team from British shipwreck recovery company Blue Water Recoveries to scan the area for the famous wrecks. According to a study published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology [PDF], the team discovered stone shot, or cannonballs, in the island's Ghubbat ar Rahib Bay. Subsequent searches revealed more artifacts, and in 2013, a British company called Blue Water Recoveries and the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture launched a full-scale excavation, the Associated Press reports.

The investigation yielded about 2800 artifacts, including ceramics, the ship’s bell, and a very rare silver coin called an Indio, one of only two surviving pieces of the centuries-old currency. Since the coins were forged in 1499 and some of the cannonballs are engraved with V.S.—the initials of Vincente Sodré—experts say there’s little doubt that the ship is, in fact, the Esmeralda. The artifacts will be conserved, examined, and eventually displayed in Oman's National Museum. 

Mearns et al. in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology

The discovery of the Esmeralda is important, archaeologists say, because few so-called India Route shipwrecks have been found. Countless ships were lost at sea during the Age of Exploration, but many were looted before experts could study them, and none of them have dated back earlier than 1552. Since the Esmeralda is the oldest shipwreck to ever be discovered from this era, it provides historians with new knowledge of how the Portuguese conducted trade and warfare in the Indian Ocean, the researchers write.

Check out a video of divers recovering the Esmeralda's bell—the oldest example of its type ever found—in the above video, courtesy of Esmeralda Shipwreck.

[h/t National Geographic]

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