Have you ever heard about the La Ballenera shipwreck? This merchant ship sank during the 16th Century, on the Algeciras Bay (Andalusia, South of Spain) whilst carrying an important cargo of Italian products. The shipwreck was discovered in 1984 by some local divers who communicated the discovery to the Spanish Ministry of Culture and, since then, the historical site has been protected.
Recently, the University of Cadiz (TIDE project partner) decided to implement an Underwater and Nautical Archaeology program. The site has become the perfect place for students’ research skills training as it is located inside a bay, with clean waters, and with a great variety of artefacts to explore. La Ballenera is of significant historical value not only for historians interested in marine heritage, but also for those people interested in underwater archaeology research.
The University of Cadiz has an agreement with local stakeholders to create a new cultural underwater touristic resource for local dive centres and museums. During June and July of 2019, a pilot project of visits to an underwater site under excavation was implemented by our partner involving several local stakeholders, including FEDAS the National Federation of Diving Activities. “Visitors got the opportunity to learn about the archaeological research process, underwater artefacts and make an archaeological guided dive to the site”, explains Felipe Cerezo, Professor, Post-Doctoral Research at Cadiz University and TIDE project partner.
What can you find underwater?
It is believed that the ship sank at the end of the 16th Century during a storm whilst probably trying to navigate to Getares safe anchorage, near Algeciras city. “At this moment of the research, we haven’t identified the name of the shipwreck yet, but it is a merchant vessel defended with probably 6 or 8 canons, in the trade route from Genoa to Seville”, continues Felipe.
The underwater archaeologists have recorded several artefacts. Among others, Italian majolica painted pottery, very appreciated in the Mediterranean Area and America. On the one hand, some of this pottery are plates decorated with figures and Saints, following renaissance motives, that come from Montelupo (Italy). On the other hand, there are some interesting cheap imitations of more expensive potteries, such as, Chinese porcelain or the Italian Marmorizzata. Apart from these, archaeologists have also recovered pieces related to the life on board: a medicine toolkit, nautical instruments, glass bottles, pots and pans, artillery, and short weapons for defending against pirates.
Felipe mentions that the site is well preserved under a great number of rocks coming from surroundings reefs. Nevertheless, there are no structural remains of the shipwreck, part of the cargo and materials are spread over the bottom.
Training site and exploration project
Every year, approximately 25 students graduate with the Underwater and Nautical Archaeology program and they visit La Ballenera. According to the Post-Doctoral Researcher, underwater archaeology is a difficult discipline, “it happens under the water and students must have training on underwater archaeological work. They have the possibility to do it during the program acquiring practical knowledge to start their professional career”.
As it happens with any intervention on public heritage, the University of Cadiz presented a project to the Regional Government of Andalusia to get the permissions to explore the site. Also, they had to contact the Harbour Authority, the Maritime Authority, the Spanish Navy Regional Authority and the ‘El Estrecho’ Natural Park (because of the close location to this natural maritime and terrestrial park) to be able to access the shipwreck for educational and research purposes. This is a great example of inclusion and involvement of regional & national stakeholders and authorities to highlight and enhance a historical asset.
La Ballenera is not only a training site, but also an exploration project where students learn the complete process of underwater research (the planning, logistic preparations of the activity with the UCADIZ research vessel, survey, recording and excavation). Finally, they learn about extraction and in situ preservation. “This is the most fun part of the whole program. They make 2 or 3 dives per day, learning from each other, professors and the vessel crew”, adds Felipe.
The Master’s Program is taught in Spanish and it is the unique one in this language on Underwater Archaeology. In the four editions, University of Cadiz has welcomed more than 28 international students from Greece, Italy or Finland, but the majority have come from Latin America (Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala or Mexico). Some students even complete their Master’s Thesis with research questions related to this site. In consequence, the University of Cadiz has a deeper interpretation of the shipwreck.
The University of Cadiz has recognized the full value and potential of this historical site in their possession and hope that they can further develop the educational and tourism services it facilitates. They hope to implement digital transformation technologies to enrich the experience of those who want to engage with the shipwreck. “This is why we have decided to implement a pilot action on this underwater site with the TIDE project. Virtual Dives and web live footage during the excavation seasons are our proposal for public engagement”, concludes Felipe.