Crossing over: Archives of paper, water, and wood

By Ana Rita Trindade

When, in Madrid, ForSEAdiscovery coordinator Ana Crespo Solana invited me to visit the project’s archaeological campaign in Galicia, I felt that it could be a nice kind of reinvented return to my days of field work. As an archaeologist now working as an historian in the project, I have moved a little distance from archaeological practices, which were exchanged by archival and bibliographical research. The twist in that return to an archaeological campaign was that this would be my first contact ever with an underwater, nautical archaeological project. So, I was excited to get to know how my archaeologist colleagues work underwater. They would give me the hands-on contact with what I had only known from a theoretical perspective from my undergraduate and Master’s coursework. I was to join the team from 22-28 June in Ribadeo, where we would work, live and eat together, just like in those summer campaigns as an archaeology student. Not only were the field work days back, but the school days as well.

Ribadeo would be the last stop of a whole month of diving operations for the campaign, which had started on 2 June, preceded by work in Finisterra and Viveiro, each corresponding to wreck sites of ships constructed from the 16th to 18th centuries. For me, the campaign would start a little bit earlier, in May, less than half way between Madrid and Galicia, at the General Archive of Simancas (Valladolid).

General Archive of Simancas, Spain

General Archive of Simancas, Vallodolid

Since my individual project within ForSEAdiscovery focuses on timber supply during the 18th century, I was given the mission of researching the Santa Maria Magdalena frigate (or La Magdalena), which sank in Viveiro on 2 November 1810. In this first documentary approach to the frigate, I would have to identify the dates of its construction and launching, features, timbers (including species, provenance regions, and specific sites), as well as supply methods and management. This is all important information to be delivered to the archaeologists and wood scientists, and together we will reconcile the documentary data with the results of shipwreck archaeology and wood sample analyses.

On 17 May, I arrived in Simancas with only a few clues to work with, but soon I had clearly identified the launching date as 7 July 1773, at Esteiro (Ferrol). Now I had to go back in order to understand the process of its construction and look for signs of the wood. The first question was relatively easy to answer, despite the little information available. The second was more difficult, since at that time, complete and detailed inventories of timber for the construction of a particular frigate did not exist. The research strategy turned into a search for indirect information regarding the timber supply of the Maritime Department of Ferrol during the previous years, in order to figure out a model into which the shipbuilding process of La Magdalena would have fit. In other words, I had to make an educated guess. And so, after two weeks of going through dozens of giant bow-tied stacks of paper, which in turn consisted of clusters of smaller groups of bundled sheets, I ended up tracking down some important information: references to oak from Navarra or Cantabria; pine from the Baltic region sent from Riga or Danzig by some provider named Pedro Chone; cedar, mahogany, and guayacan from the Caribbean region…

What I have just described is what the field campaigns of historians consist of: silent, isolated, cloistered (almost monastic), breathtaking diving operations into a sea of thousands of papers (and sometimes threads and knots), which will never seem adventurous and sexy enough to captivate the attention of journalists. This is in stark contrast to our archaeologist colleagues who ended up appearing in the newspapers and/or TV practically daily.

Every morning in Ribadeo, I walked down to the port with a big cardboard box full of document copies under my arm. I would join Ana Crespo Solana, and we would spend a long time reading, discussing, and making a first approach to the information that contained in these documents. These historical sessions were punctuated with much-anticipated boat trips out to the 16th century Ribadeo Galleon wreck site, accompanying the archaeologists.

The centre of the diving operations was this speedboat, where I could stand at the stern in order to get a good point of observation and photo shooting without disturbing  what revealed to be a such complex and delicate job. Before getting into the water, the divers go through some decisive and tense moments, preparing and putting on the equipment, verifying every security detail, as gradually they embody their underwater personas at the gunwale, from which they would jump or fall back into the water. And when that happens, it seems that they have gone to another dimension, similar to the astronauts who also disappear into another invisible, unnatural human habitat.

Diving archaeologist transitioning between realms. Ribadeo, Spain.

Diving archaeologist transitioning between realms. Ribadeo, Spain.

Here and there, some bubbles emerge on the surface of the water tenuously breaking the dimensional barrier, as some kind of ghostly evidence that everything is fine. And then we start receiving the audible confirmation of that, as ground control speaks with our underwater astronauts by the intercom device: “Topside to Diver 1…”. After some words more or less “loud and clear”, we can hear the sound of one thing resonating across the boat: collecting samples by sawing wood underwater.

And then again, the wood samples made me feel a little bit like an archaeologist again, as I helped Sara Rich with their cleaning, photographic documentation, and packing. This brief contact with material culture was very important to observe some of the numerous features of wood that are taken into account during the dendrochronological and dendroprovenance studies, as well as to, at last, have physical evidence for what we historians are seeking documentary traces of in the archives.

These campaigns are the truly opportunity to put the interdisciplinary spirit of the ForSEAdiscovery project in practice, since historians, archaeologists, and wood scientists  gather around particular case studies and contribute to addressing common key questions with their own research fields and methods. This is where we learn to observe from the perspective of other scientific fields, and improve our capacity for addressing our individual projects’ questions and to raise new ones.

Ana Rita Trindade is a Ph.D. student working on Historical Wood  Supply and Dynamic Trade Networks, at the Centro de Ciencias Humanas y  Sociales, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Madrid,  Spain).

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