Treasures from the Amsterdam
By Rod Webb
Hastings Independent covered the first 2019 guided tour of the wreck of the Amsterdam on a cold morning in February (see 8th March edition). At the end of March, the Burtons’ St Leonards Society held a talk about the intriguing story of what was recovered from the wreck, particularly during the Anglo-Dutch archaeological excavation of 1984-86.
The fascinating talk was given by Prue Theobold, who worked on the excavation project illustrating the finds, as did her daughter (assistant illustrator) and son (diver) – all of them were members of the Hastings Archaeological Research Group at the time.
And this is some of what we learned, much of it in the words of Prue herself.
Although at the time of the wreck looters managed to steal a whole chest of silver ingots, little was found over the following years (despite attempts by looters, as well as a limited company set up to find the treasure legally).
Until many years later that is, when in 1969, a local contractor tore into the wreck with mechanical diggers causing massive destruction over three days – while onlookers snatched up what they could. At least the site was finally taken seriously as one of historical significance. After a thorough survey by the Council for Nautical Archaeology, it emerged that the ship buried under the sand was intact and untouched!
As the Amsterdam is a Dutch ship and property of the Dutch government, a joint Anglo-Dutch foundation was set up to raise the ship and tow it back to Amsterdam; this idea had to be abandoned because of the enormous cost.
Instead they ‘dived for treasure’: the entire wreck was enclosed in an outer dyke with a small inner cofferdam of steel sheet-piling; a diving platform was built and finds were brought up and recorded – with Prue’s illustrations.
The first items were mainly bits of ship’s tackle, but things got more interesting on discovering signs of women passengers: first off, a dainty lady’s shoe. This belonged to either Pieternella van Bockom or her sister – travelling to get married.
For Prue herself, the most fascinating find was what looked like a bundle of sludge that turned out to be some kind of textile with remnants of embroidered fabric. Prue thinks this was part of a marriage quilt being stitched by the two sisters.
All sorts of other odds and ends were found, including large numbers of hand-made brass pins – making pins was a cottage industry, hence the term ‘pin money’.
Unfortunately, Customs and Excise wanted to examine everything including a lead-sealed barrel containing nothing but Irish butter. Wasted time and lack of funds led to a decision to discontinue at the close of the 1986 excavation.
So, the wreck was secured and covered with the all-preserving sand, the lower two-thirds of the ship still buried untouched and unseen including the hold and its entire cargo!
• For more information on events visit www.burtonsstleonardssociety.co.uk
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