A historian caught under the waves

By Koldo Trápaga Monchet

Since becoming involved in the ForSEAdiscovery project, I’ve been experimenting with the reality of being a multidisciplinary researcher. As a historian-cum-archaeologist, this has involved jumping in feet first – or fins first, as the case may be. The project’s nautical archaeology team is working on Age of Discovery shipwrecks located in Galicia, in the north of Spain, for the whole month of June. I arrived in Finisterre from Porto, ten days after the archaeological campaign on the Bayonnaise shipwreck had started.

On 12 June, I traveled from Porto, where I’d spent the last four days at an exhausting academic conference, to Finisterre. It may look close on the map, but I had to take two trains and one bus, and among these three legs of the trip, I must have encountered at least fifty new places. At this point, I started developing a contradictory feeling. On one hand, it was exciting to pass through unknown places, but on the other, I was growing increasingly concerned that I would never actually arrive in Finisterre – which means ‘Land’s End’. It seemed like the train was somehow capable of conjuring up new stations every hour just to make the trip longer, just to toy with my sanity.

The following day, still recuperating from travel-lag, I got ‘into the water’ to develop my scuba diving skills, which I have to hone as a newly-ordained nautical archaeologist. One thing I’m quickly learning is that divers are always hungry. So after my dive on the Bayonnaise, I devoured my usual brunch with unusual energy.

As luck would have it (or not), less than 24 hours after my arrival came the next departure. We packed up and moved on from Finisterre to Viveiro, further up on the north coast. The team had a day off in Viveiro to get settled in, so I decided to go for a run and develop a clearer picture of this place where we would spend the following days. And again, after running, came that characteristic and immediate need for food. Whenever I’m in Spain, I have to eat my favorite dish: pintxo de tortilla. But being in a new city, and slowly dying of hunger, I spent two hours wandering around the village to track down a place to buy it!

The long awaited and well-deserved pinxto de tortilla!

The long awaited and well-deserved pinxto de tortilla!

The next day though, it was back to the water again, this time for La Magdalena shipwreck. Our dive team scoped out the shipwreck and looked for the best structural timbers to sample for dendroprovenance. As a PhD in history, though, my questions about La Magdalena instinctively took me to the Municipal Archive in Viveiro. Again, as luck would have it (or not), the Archive was closed, and the building seemed deserted. I called their phone number, but no one picked up. I was getting anxious, as historians do when locked outside the archive (We prefer to be locked inside.). So I decided to walk over to the City Hall and inquire.

Viveiro, Spain, village of coincidences and not a bad place to wander in search of archives and tortillas.

Viveiro, Spain, village of coincidences and not a bad place to wander in search of archives and tortillas.

On the way there, I remembered that I needed to buy some aspirin, so I stopped at the pharmacy. There I asked the pharmacist about the archive and why it was closed. As luck would have it (for real this time), a man in the pharmacy overheard my inquiry. This man was a treasure trove of information regarding La Magdalena! He gave me an important volume based on primary sources along with a lot of other information. Even though the archivist won’t return from holiday until after I return to Porto, I was still able to conduct some historical research on key questions about this shipwreck. As Albert Einstein used to say: “during moments of crisis, only imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Dr. Koldo Trápaga Monchet is currently carrying out his research at the Instituto de Arqueologia y Paleociências, at the New University of Lisbon as a Marie Curie ITN fellow.

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