An underwater photograph of a diver looking for artefacts at a shipwreck’s excavation site.
A brief introduction to Archaeology Maritime Archaeology

­­The Discovery of the Rooswijk Shipwreck

The wreck of the Rooswijk, which sunk in 1740, was discovered off the Kent coast in 2005.

The Rooswijk was a Dutch East India Company trading ship that sunk in January 1740 on the Goodwin Sands off the Kent coast.

The ship sank after hitting a fierce storm, with the loss of all 237 members of the crew.

Their personal belongings and the ship’s cargo lay dormant on the Goodwin Sands until the wreck was discovered in 2005.

What was the Rooswijk?

The Rooswijk was a trade ship built in 1737. It set sail on its first successful voyage to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta in Indonesia) in October 1737.

The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, profited from many different avenues, including transporting goods such as spices worldwide. It also profited from the trade of enslaved people through colonisation.

A sepia drawing of several ships sailing in the sea.
A 1716 drawing by artist Adolf van der Laan of a Dutch ‘hekboot’, a ship similar to the Rooswijk. © Collection of the Fries Scheepvaartmuseum.

Captained by Daniel Ronzieres, the Rooswijk started her final journey on 8 January 1740.

The ship left Texel in the Netherlands for the last time and headed to modern-day Jakarta on a trip that was due to take eight months.

A colourful illustration of a harbour city, with buildings, houses and ships visible.
The city of Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, now modern-day Jakarta in Indonesia. © Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo.

On this journey, the ship was caught in a fierce storm after just one day of sailing.

Thousands of vessels have been wrecked on the Goodwin Sands, dubbed ‘the great ship swallower’.

The discovery of the Rooswijk shipwreck

The Rooswijk was discovered by amateur diver Ken Welling in 2005 after the Goodwin Sands shifted, revealing the wreck below.

This was the first time in 265 years that anyone had seen the shipwreck.

An underwater photograph of a diver looking for artefacts at a shipwreck’s excavation sit.
A diver at the Rooswijk excavation site. © Historic England / RCE.

In 2007, the Rooswijk became a Protected Wreck, ensuring that no unapproved diving occurs in the area.

Two seasons of intense excavations took place between 2017 and 2018 to bring these artefacts up 25 meters to the surface for analysis and conservation.

A photograph of a large boat in the sea.
The Terschelling, the boat that divers are using to excavate the Rooswijk. © Historic England.

This work was a collaboration between Historic England, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and MSDS Marine.

Who was on board the Rooswijk?

The Rooswijk had 237 members of crew onboard when it sunk. So far, 29 have been identified.

Most of the men onboard the Rooswijk were from the Netherlands, whilst 11 of them had German, Swedish and Norwegian backgrounds.

A black and white illustration of several 18th century merchant ships in a harbour.
Merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company in a harbour. © history_docu_photo / Alamy Stock Photo.

Those identified include Gerrit Hendrik Huffelman, a senior surgeon; Thomas Huijdekoper, a 19-year-old on his first voyage with the Company; and Pieter Calmer and Jacob Morre, sailors who had previously survived a shipwreck at the Cape of Good Hope in 1737.

Many of those were identified due to research in the Amsterdam Notarial Archives and the work of Dutch genealogists.

Several other crew members have been identified from transport letters in Amsterdam City Archives.

A massive 5 storey brick building.
The Amsterdam City Archives, the world’s largest municipal archive. © David Gee 4 / Alamy Stock Photo.

Transport letters authorised someone to collect part of a crew member’s salary from the Dutch East India Company.

Archaeological discoveries and excavation

When the Rooswijk left for its final voyage, it was loaded with 300,000 guilder worth of gold and silver, which was to be transported to modern-day Jakarta.

This vast amount of precious metal was mainly transported in the shape of silver bars and Spanish reals.

A photograph of 9 coins laid out on a black background.
A collection of the coins that were found in the wreck of the Rooswijk. © Historic England Archive. DP220676.

Archaeologists have discovered many other older coins, including those outside of the sanctioned cargo. This could suggest that the crew and passengers onboard the Rooswijk were carrying coins to trade privately.

In total, five chests of concreted sabre blades were removed from the wreck. 100 blades have so far been removed from one chest and carefully cleaned and conserved for future generations.

These blades had intricate designs of the sun, moon, stars, and a weaving snake etched onto them with acid.

A conservator looking at 68 sabre blades laid out side by side.
Conservator Carola Del Mese with sabre blades removed from chests found in the wreck of the Rooswijk. © Historic England.

Work is still ongoing to remove the blades from the remaining chests.

The crew and passengers would have used many everyday items onboard the Rooswijk throughout their long journey.

A photograph of a grey pewter jug surrounded by 7 pewter spoons on a black background.
Pewter jug and pewter spoons found in the wreck of the Rooswijk. © Historic England Archive. DP349910.

These items range from pewter jugs and spoons to a nit comb. They give us insight into life at sea during the 18th century.

Conserving the artefacts

Post excavation, conservators and material scientists have worked on the artefacts at our Fort Cumberland Research Facility in Portsmouth, Hampshire.

This work has helped to uncover the secrets behind the tragic loss of the Rooswijk.

A photograph of two women holding and looking at a recovered object.
Historic England’s Gill Campbell, Head of Fort Cumberland Laboratories, and Angela Middleton, Senior Archaeological Conservator, inspecting finds from the Rooswijk at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth. © Historic England.

Many scientific technologies have been used throughout the analysis and conservation period to reveal and identify hidden artefacts.

X-radiography has been used to capture images of the interior of concreted artefacts. This led to the identification of silver coins, knife handles and tool handles.

A photograph of a carved wooden knife handle on a black background.
A carved knife handle that was discovered using x-radiography. © Historic England Archive. DP349864.

As of June 2023, more than 2,500 artefacts have been conserved and will return to the Netherlands.

Conservation work continues at Fort Cumberland.

Further reading

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