THE HAGUE: A 17th century silk dress found perfectly preserved with hundreds of other objects in a shipwreck swallowed below the seabed off the Dutch coast has gone on display in a unique exhibition.
“The clothes are so intact, you could wear them,” enthused Dutch archaeologist Rob van Eerden, saying the discovery was almost like the opening of “Tutankhamen’s tomb”.
The dress, along with other items such as a lice-comb made from cow horn nestled in its red velvet holder or a perfume bottle to be filled with flowers and worn around the neck, is part of an exhibition called “Garde Robe” (Wardrobe) on show until May 16 at the Kaap Skil museum on the island of Texel off the northern Dutch coast.
They were all part of a discovery by an amateur diving club, which found the three-masted sailing ship dubbed the “Palmhoutwrak” lying some five metres (15 feet) below the sandy seabed.
The ship appears to have been immediately engulfed by sand when it sank off the remote Dutch coast “creating an environment lacking in oxygen, perfect for preservation,” Van Eerden told AFP.
Five members of a local diving club had been exploring the wreck since first discovering it in 2009. But on one “exciting” chance dive in the summer of 2014, they saw something new.
“The sand which had been covering the ship had been swept away by the sea. And in the hull we discovered fragments of wooden caskets in which fabric had been stowed,” said Gerrit Jan Betsema, a 58-year-old who has been diving for the past three decades.
Some of it appeared to be a kind of damask, a glorious heavy silk with a flowery embroidery. It unfolded to reveal a long-sleeved, tight-waisted dress, with a high-neck collar, and a wide, full-pleated skirt, dating back four centuries.
– Royal cargo? –
It resembles a dress worn by a noble lady called Catherine Howard, the wife of a prominent English landowner, in an early 17th-century painting by William Larkin.
“All the clothes are the same size and may have belonged to one woman, who was likely fleeing the Civil War,” said Van Eerden.
Early analysis of the wreck shows it was built and sank in the mid-17th century — a time of great turmoil in England when King Charles I was pushed off the throne during the rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell.
The treacherous waters off the northern Dutch coast are strewn with shipwrecks from different epochs.
But mystery abounds over who was on board this boat when it sank, and speculation has deepened as a book cover was found among the belongings bearing the seal of the English royal family, the Stuarts, which had links to the Dutch royal house of Orange-Nassau.
A team of some 10 experts at the North Holland provincial archaeological centre, the Huis Van Hilde, have been entrusted with the task of dating the hundreds of objects brought back to the surface.
It is a painstaking task carried out by comparing the objects with paintings and tracing back the origins of the materials.
Some of the fabric seems to have come from Turkey, India or even as far away as Persia as it is embroidered with flowers and animals unknown in Europe at the time.
“It is such an exceptional discovery and so unexpected that we are calling on different disciplines to determine what type of research to undertake,” said Van Eerden.
As for the wreck — which remains almost intact at the bottom of the shallow Wadden Sea stretching from the Netherlands to Denmark — it is to be re-covered in sand to protect it from erosion until better excavation techniques are developed to allow it to be safely hoisted to the surface. –AFP