Divers Find 400-Year-Old Silk Dress in Dutch Shipwreck


For those of you who don’t speak Dutch, here’s the deal: Divers in the Wadden Sea found a fancy 17th-century gown partially buried in the sand. The gown is astonishingly well-preserved, given the circumstances, and may be one of the most important artifacts ever brought up from the sea floor.

The dress was recovered off the Dutch island of Texel, which was, for a time, an important center of trade. Unfortunately for traders, Texel’s location also made it a prime site for shipwrecks. As Livius at The History Blog explains, “Ships anchored in the Texel roadstead, a sheltered area in the lee of the island, waiting for propitious winds, waiting out bad weather or taking on crew and cargo, only to be wrecked in sudden unexpected storms.”

Many of those wrecks have since been washed further out to sea, but some remain in the relative shallows surrounding the island. Divers generally avoid disturbing them, instead waiting for the ocean to reveal the rotting wrecks. Two years ago, the currents uncovered a historical (not literal) gold mine: the remains of a well appointed merchant vessel from the 1600s. The ship had shed a mysterious bundle, which the divers ferried back to the surface.

Once in open air, they opened the package and realized they’d found the contents of someone’s wardrobe, and that someone must have been pretty well off. There were silk knee socks and a jacket, as well as a silk bodice embroidered in silver and gold.

But the most impressive piece was a damask gown with a high collar and ruffled sleeves—the kind of thing noblewomen or royalty might wear around the house. For the gown, anyway, the shipwreck had been a blessing; on land, exposed to air and moths, it would be in much worse shape than it is today. Professor Emmy de Groot of the University of Amsterdam called it “the Night Watch of the costume world.”

The wreck site also disgorged a variety of fancy-people artifacts, including pomander balls, a silver vessel, Italian pottery, spices, and leather-bound books. One of those books bears the coat of arms of King Charles I, which suggests that the ship’s passengers may have belonged to the royal house of Stuart.

The gown and other finds from the shipwreck are currently on display at Texel’s delightful Kaap Skil Maritime and Beachcombers’ Museum, and will return there permanently after they’re examined and treated by conservators.

Images from YouTube // Museum Kaap Skil Oudeschild, Texel