The Last Voyage of El Nuevo Constante: The Wreck and Recovery of an Eighteenth-Century Spanish Ship Off the Louisiana Coast.Charles E. Pearson and Paul E. Hoffman, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London, 1995. 264 pp., illustrations, tables, maps, references. $29.95 Tr. ISBN 0-8071-1918-0.
Reviewed by Michael K. Faught, Director of Program in Underwater Archaeology, Department of Anthropology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306 USA
Nautical archaeologists are often forced to ascertain the age, function, and nationality of a shipwreck strictly from her artifacts and hull remains. Only a limited history can be reconstructed from this "etic" archaeological record. Some shipwrecks, on the other hand, are "identified", or named, either because researchers use clues in historical documents to find a particular vessel, or because they have inferred the identity of a discovered wreck through comparison of written records and details of the sunken remains. Such is the case with El Nuevo Constante, a wrecked vessel identified by concordance between archaeological and written records. Because of this identity, more narratives and records regarding a richer, emic history have been reconstructed by Pearson and Hoffman in this well written, but essentially descriptive volume.
Located one mile offshore of southwestern Louisiana, the wreck of El Nuevo Constante was discovered and partially salvaged by shrimpers off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in 1979. The wreckage was surrounded by very fine grain sediments, a good environment for preservation, but poor for diver visibility once the disciplined archaeology got underway. She contained preserved cargo and personal items, both organic and metallic remains (including some silver and gold). The lower sections of the vessels hull were well preserved, but poor visibility conditions inhibited detailed photographic recording. Advised of the extent of the remains by the shrimpers, the state of Louisiana initiated record searches in Louisiana and in Spain. Locational information from the documentary sources was accurate, and local geographic features retained various forms of the term "Constante". The record searches revealed rich written accounts of the ships history, cargo and passenger manifest, as well as details of the sinking event and attempts to salvage her cargo within the first year of sinking. Consequently, a management plan, with state funding, was devised to remove the wreckage contents, study and map the hull remains, and to preserve the hull by leaving it in situ.
Pearson and Hoffman present a rich exposition of the development and character of mid-Eighteenth century trade systems, and trade routes, couching the wrecking of the Constante in the frame of Spains increasing troubles in the mid-eighteenth century world trade market. They present details of the trade items most commonly moved at the time, and the bureaucratic maze necessary to traverse the oceans. Originally built by British shipwrights, El Nuevo Constante was eventually sold to the widow of a merchant of Cadiz, Spain to be used for shipping between the New World and the Old. Bound for Spain in a flota or convoy originating Vera Cruz, with a stop planned in Cuba, the vessel wrecked in a storm in September of 1766. The authors lay out the preparations for sailing, the last voyage and the early attempts at her salvage. These background discussions represent the rich, "emic" story so useful to compare and contrast written history with the archaeological record.
Phased archaeological field work was conducted on El Nuevo Constante in 1980 and 1981, first by remote sensing (sidescan sonar and magnetometer survey), then coring the surrounding sediments to understand the post wrecking deposition and depth of remains, and finally by induction dredge exposure. Diving operations took place in an extremely low visibility, high energy, marine environment. The bottom sediments were very fine, and any disturbance created a mucky soup to work in. Images from the sidescan sonar revealed the lay of the wreck and the shape of the boat, and an ingenious grid with "braille-like" markers attached at ten foot intervals to orient the diving archaeologists on the wreck was deployed. Their diving operation included surface supplied air using face masks with radio communications. Much of the cargo and artifacts remaining with the vessel were found at the stern end, surely due more to post-depositional disturbance (salvage attempts and sea disturbance) than to their original contexts on the vessel. One major benefit of a shipwreck, from an archaeometrical perspective, is the particularistic, catastrophic, nature of its deposition - the "moment in time" of its sinking. When she went down, El Nuevo Constante contained a rich array of ceramic artifacts bound for sale in Europe. These products include Majolica, Rey and Guadalajara ceramic wares as cargo. These artifacts could be used for various materials science analyses, as well as design element and formal studies to develop better understanding of New World ceramic production processes and chronologies.
Preservation of nonmetal artifacts such as leather, cloth, turtle shell, and several varieties of dyestuff (including cochineal, annatto, indigo, and logwood) was very good. A substantial portion of the wooden structure of the vessel was preserved in place, and several types of wood used in her construction were recorded. Pearson and Hoffman detail the ballast stone types, remaining metal hardware, anchors, various fasteners and fittings, pieces of the rudder assemblage, some rigging (not usually preserved in shipwreck assemblages), as well as remains of the bilge pumps. Armament found among the wreckage included three cannons and several types of ammunition. Subsistence remains from the wreckage included animal bone fragments of cow, pig, goat or sheep and possibly turtles. In addition, wine bottle fragments, olive jars (botijos), fragments of metates and manos, and other utilitarian items were also recovered. Dont forget that "treasures" were also found in the wreck, including copper, silver, and gold.
It is to the authors credit that they published this volume so as to bring documentation of this valuable cultural resource out of the "gray literature" and into a wider academic audience. While ultimately descriptive, the volume by Pearson and Hoffman is detailed and well balanced. It presents a strong argument for the wrecked vessels identity by demonstrating resonance between cargo manifests, wrecking narratives, and assemblage characteristics. In sum, the particularist and the processualist, alike will find this book to represent an "ethnoarchaeological" picture of Euro-American occupation of the western Gulf of Mexico in the 18th century.