Shipwrecks and Treasure: The Pipe Wreck of Monte Cristi

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In the 1960’s the remains of a 17th century Dutch merchantman was discovered off the north coast of the Dominican Republic. But it wasn’t until the 1990’s that archaeologists carried out extensive excavation of the wreck site. Ultimately the s

In the 1960’s the remains of a 17th century shipwreck was discovered by fisherman off the north coast of the Dominican Republic, between Puerto Plata and Monte Cristi. Initially little was known about the importance of the wreck and due to its location in the shallow Bay of Monte Cristi the wreck site had been repeatedly salvaged over the years. Principally what salvagers found on the wreck, which is now little more than a pile of timbers that forms a coral reef, was thousands of clay pipes. This fact caught the attention of archaeologists at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and prompted an archeological excavation of the Bay in 1991. The archaeologists had many unanswered questions about the mysteries shipwreck, yet they knew the clay pipes and other artifacts could yield much information about the ships history and time period.

After several archaeological excavations, which yielded a diverse myriad of artifacts, and many years of research, the INA and other research teams, including the University of San Diego came to following conclusions.

The vessel was an English built, Dutch merchantman carrying a cargo of European goods intended for the Dutch-American settlement near modern day Albany, upstate New York. Silver coins found on the shipwreck helped date the merchant vessels demise between 1651 and 1665. Evidence of charred wood and melted brass revealed that there had most likely been an explosion and fire aboard the ship which had caused it to sink.

Clay Pipes: the exact number of tobacco smoking clay pipes found at the wreck site (mostly fragmented) is unknown although estimates are in the tens of thousands. All of the pipes were made in Holland and fall in two style categories. The vast majority of the pipes were European style barrel-shaped, intended for trade with colonists. Interestingly, the remainder were funnel pipes. This type of pipe was made to replicate the pipes used by Native Americans and would have been used for colonial-tribal trade.

Dutch clay pipes had longer stems than other European pipes.

Rhenish Stoneware: aside from clay pipes a large part of the merchant ship’s cargo included a type of German made glazed earthenware known as Rhenish stoneware. Rhenish earthenware jugs were produced in the Rhine River Valley region and the low countries between 1500 and 1700. Fragments of brown Rhenish stoneware found at the “Pipe Wreck” were decorated with faces known as Bartmannkruge. This type of stoneware was typically produced in the town of Frechen near Cologne and parallels’ stoneware discovered at excavation sites, primarily Dutch settlements, in North America and at other shipwreck sites worldwide.

Archaeologists also found fragments of Westerwald pottery. A type of salt-glazed, blue and white stoneware also from Germany. However, because it was found in small amounts it is believed that the pottery was for utility use and not for trade.

Brown Rhenish stoneware.

Other artifacts recovered included 28 silver ocho reales coins minted in Potosi, Bolivia and Colombia; cooking cauldrons, glass beads, combs and thinbles.

One of the questions researchers looked for answer to but may never know, was why a Dutch merchantman was trading in Spanish waters, considering the Dutch War of Independence or Eighty Years War between Spain and United Dutch provinces and England had just ended. One theory is that the “Pipe Wreck” had stopped at the Bay of Monte Cristi to rendezvous with buccaneers which were known to operate on the north side of Hispaniola. There they would have traded finished goods from Europe for raw materials such as leather, salt and tobacco.

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