Explore a Shipwreck

Ships of Discovery Sites

Ships of Discovery’s research program has searched for, tested, and excavated several early European shipwreck sites in the Americas. Because no one site can answer all our questions about the ships, their contents, their crew and passengers, we traveled the Caribbean and beyond to examine various wrecks. Some sites offered significant artifacts, others contained well-preserved hull remains, still others tantalized us with the possibilities . . .

Perhaps the most important is the Molasses Reef Wreck

Gerard Foundation RV Morning Watch moored at Molasses Reef

Situated on the remote southwest rim of the Caicos Bank, Molasses Reef is a natural ship trap. Between 1982 and 1986, we completely excavated a shipwreck dating to a very early period of European presence in the Americas. Little was known about the ships of that period of exploration because those ships were not built using architectural plans.
Five things were immediately apparent to archaeologists observing the site:

  • the small size of the mound of stone ballast
  • the shape of the ballast mound revealing the shape of the ship’s long-decayed hull
  • the large quantity of early 16th-century cannon of various types, lying on the sea floor in pairs
  • the large anchor, partially buried in the ballast mound
  • a trail of ballast stones

What ship was this? What was its mission?

Little remained of the ship’s wooden hull. Nearly five centuries on the hard sea floor, with little protection from a shallow layer of shifting sand, had left the ship’s hull exposed to ship worm and other forces of destruction.
Luckily, the configuration of items on the Molasses Reef wreck were hauntingly similar to a shipwreck in the Bahamas partially salvaged in the mid-1960s—the Highborn Cay wreck.
Long years after the excavation, a pioneering study of the origins of the ballast stones—a case of “geology upside down”—pinpointed Lisbon, Portugal, as the possible site of the vessel’s construction. Other stones originated in the Azores, Canaries, or Maderia, the east coast of Spain, and Bristol, England—all common trade connections with Lisbon.
Excavation is just the beginning of exploring a shipwreck. Many years of conservation and research in libraries and archives uncovered much more of the Molasses Reef wreck.

Other Ships of Discovery Sites

Bahía Mujeres Wreck
Highborn Cay Wreck

Bahía Isabela
Santa María