The Dendro-Archaeology of Seventeenth-Century Dutch East Indiaman Vergulde Draak

Research Projects | Updated 3 years ago

Artefacts recovered from the Vergulde Draak
Artefacts recovered from the Vergulde Draak
Image copyright of WA Museum

This project commenced in February 2009 as an international research effort to conduct a dendro-archaeological study (study of old timbers) of the hull remains from the Vergulde Draak (1656) ship. The project is a collaboration between the WA Museum with RING, the Dutch Centre for Dendrochronology. The principal investigator is Dr Wendy van Duivenvoorde from the WA Museum.

Unlike the well-known Batavia ship, no intact structure of Vergulde Draak's hull has ever been found. Nevertheless, hundreds of timber fragments from the ship have been retrieved from the seabed since its earliest archaeological excavation in 1972. These fragmentary remains are part of the WA Museum's collection and recently have been the subject of study.* Most of the fragments have been identified as hull planking, framing timber, wooden fasteners, and sacrificial planking or sheathing.

Although poorly preserved, the Vergulde Draak timber has an important research value for the historic study of timber use and trade networks in post-Medieval Europe. The dendrochronological, or tree-ring, study of the Vergulde Draak timbers will provide clues to the ship itself, such as the date when it was built (the Dutch United India Company bought the already-existing ship in 1653) and where its wood came from (i.e., in what European forest its wood was sourced). The latter is of particular importance, as the Vergulde Draak ship was built in a period when a major shift occurred in European timber markets.

Concurrently, and perhaps consequently, Dutch shipbuilders switched from bottom-based to frame-based construction. The latter method better utilises timber and is tolerant of lower quality woods. This change may have resulted from the depletion of high-quality oak timber sources in Poland, which forced the Dutch to acquire timber elsewhere (Germany) and amend their shipbuilding practices.

The results of the Vergulde Draak's dendro-archaeological study may prove crucial to our understanding of European forest sourcing and its relation to shipbuilding practices in the mid-17th century. They will be used to test new hypotheses proposed in a recent study on Dutch shipbuilding.*

* W. van Duivenvoorde. "Yacht Vergulde Draak (1656)," in The Batavia Shipwreck: An Archaeological Study of an Early Seventeenth-Century Dutch East Indiaman (Ph.D. Dissertation, Texas A&M University, 8 August 2008), pp. 281-312.