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The cargo of the Gagliana Grossa: silk, jewels and some amazing stories

A ship that sank in 1583 off the Croatian coast is starting to reveal secrets it has kept hidden for hundreds of years, and a close examination of how it met its underwater grave and the cargo it held are the projects of a Texas A&M University nautical archaeology professor.

Filipe Castro has been working on the shipwreck in a joint project with the University of Zadar, co-directing it with Irena Radic Rossi.  The ship was named after the family that bought it – the Gaglianos – and was known as the Gagliana Grossa due to its large capacity.  Today, it is referred to as the Gnalić shipwreck after the rocky islet it hit during a storm, in November 1583, situated a few miles south of Biograd na Moru, in Croatia.

A team of Texas A&M students is trying to piece together – quite literally – the ship.  The project is funded by Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archeology and Conservation and the Croatian Ministry of Culture.

Castro says it’s believed the ship sank during a storm in 1583.

“It has a very colorful past,” he explains.  “The ship was quite large for its time, about 120 feet long, and was a prized merchant ship built in Venice in 1569.  It was seized by the Ottomans in 1571, used during the Cyprus War and the following decade, and was sold to a businessman in 1581.  He sent it to Venice for repairs and back to Constantinople with a cargo from several European countries.  It sunk a few days after leaving Venice.

“Among other precious items, which included a large amount of jewels, the ship carried three bales of the finest silk as a gift to the sultan’s mother Nūr Bānū, sometimes believed to be an Italian lady named Cecilia Venier-Baffo, who was abducted by the famous admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa and offered to sultan Selim II.  The ship was also carrying a large quantity of Murano glassware, as well as paint pigments for the Topkapi Palace to reconstruct part of Sultan’s Murad III Harem Quarters, which suffered a fire a few months before.

“So along with the ship’s insurance policies and resulting claims on its losses when it sank and other political entanglements, it has had a very interesting history.”

The shipwreck was first discovered in 1967 at a depth of 90 feet. Among the many items recovered are fine and ornate glass bottles, vases, rare goblets and drinking glasses.  More than 2,300 of these have been recovered, some with traces of the wicker baskets that protected them still remaining.  The cargo recovered also includes nine bronze guns, dozens of barrels with lead paint or lead ingots, brass chandeliers, shaving instruments, vials of mercury, rolls of silk, clothing items, coils and sheets of brass, which were expensive at the time, pottery and sewing utensils.

Perhaps the most prized artifacts recovered were several dozen pairs of eyeglasses probably made in Nuremberg, Germany, each still encased in a specially-made leather case.

“These are almost unique and thus prized worldwide by scientists because they are so rare,” Castro says.

Of the shipwreck itself, Castro notes, “Last summer we found the keel, which helped us understand the ship’s orientation and shape, and once completely exposed will help us calculate the length of the ship, the location of the masts, also the shape of the bow and stern.

“There is still much work to be done, both in recovering the artifacts and reconstructing the ship,” Castro adds.  “We started work in 2011 and the work will probably take several more years.  We are using a process called photogrammetry, which produces 3-D images, and working in cooperation with   Texas A&M’s VizLab and Department of Computer Science, lending a multidisciplinary component to this project that has been very helpful. It’s been a great learning experience for our students at the site.”

All recovered artifacts are now on display at the Biograd Museum.

Castro and the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation are currently involved in numerous shipwreck projects in Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Malta, Mexico and other locations.