Ancient Documents

two caravels

This paragraph is from the inventory that Pedro Frances, master of the caravel Niña (also called Santa Clara), made of the caravel and of its gear.

Both archaeology and history interpret the past, but they take different roads to the same destination. Historical and archival research are fundamental aspects of an archaeological project. In a very real sense, contemporary documents are artifacts. They are simply in situ somewhere else. They carry their information not only in their material, form, and provenience but also on another level—an abstract level. It is the information contained in the abstract level that is most used.

Documents like the inventory provide important clues that help archaeologists identify shipwreck remains and put them into historical context.

For example, this document makes it clear that Niña was a three masted caravel, had a foremast, mainmast, and a mizzen mast, and was lateen, rather than square rigged. This tells us that we should be looking for at least two mast steps in the keelson; the foremast may or may not be set into that element.


I, Pedro Frances, citizen of Palos, master of the caravel named Niña, God
save her, do declare and recognize having received and had turned over to me
said caravel with rigging and following items:

First the hull of the caravel with all
the masts and lateen yards of said caravel
Carrying a mainsail and two bonnets
A foremast mainsail and bonnet, both old
An old mizzen sail
A half-worn countermizzen sail
In addition, a mainsail and bonnet [for the] mainmast
and a foremast mainsail and new bonnet
2 half-worn cables
1 old main tye runner [halyard], a mizzen tye runner • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Denise C. Lakey “The Inventories of Nina and Santa Cruz” Appendix D, pp.230-256 in Roger C. Smith, Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus (Oxford University Press, 1993).
Archivo General de Indias (Seville, Spain). Contratación 3249, folio 178 vuelto.

Contemporary written treatises such as those of Timbotta (1441-1449), Oliveria (1580), García de Palacio (1587), Lavanha (1600), Fernandes (1616) and others provide information of a different type. These present general rules and proportions for building ships of the 15th and 16th centuries, however these authors were educated men and did not necessarily have the practical experience of the shipwright. It has been left to archaeologists excavating these ships to unravel the mysteries of their construction.

Other collections of copied archival materials pertaining to maritime topics can be found in:

Old Spanish Missions Historical Research Collection in the Special Collections department, St. Florence Library, Our Lady of the Lake University (San Antonio, Texas)
Lakey DeLuna Research Collection (Accession M1996-09) in the Special Collections department, John C. Pace Library, University of West Florida (Pensacola, Florida)
National Archives of Canada (Ottawa)