Seldom has a naval archaeological discovery received as much media attention as the Texel wreck BZN17, also known as the Palmwood wreck. No surprise, given this extremely unique find appeals to the imagination and the investigation into the shipwreck is an extremely exciting one. Among the more remarkable items retrieved are a number of textile objects. Having had the opportunity to photograph this exceptional collection of archaeological textiles has enriched my knowledge of the Dutch Golden Age. Central to this story are straatvaarders: merchant ships that sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar to the Levant and Italy.
Priceless and vulnerable
There is a chance you have already seen or read something about the elegant seventeenth-century dress that in 2014 was retrieved almost intact from the North Sea near the Dutch island of Texel. Along with this garment, however, much more was discovered: around 250 textile fragments from about 25 objects including remnants of clothing and decorative interior textiles, both Western European and Oriental. Once fine fabrics woven from colourful silk and decorated with metallic threads. After more than 350 years under water the colours are somewhat fainter, and the silver in the weave has gone black – crumbles with the slightest movement. Yet, it is still clear how unique and costly these textiles were, even the small fragments exhibit some of their original allure.
Handled with care and kept cooled
It is exceptional that so many of these textiles were preserved, but after the fragments had been washed and dried, the responsibility of keeping them from deteriorating further began. This greatly influenced the photographic process. These fragments had to be handled with extreme care by experienced textile restorers who carefully laid out each of the pieces and then turned them over so they could be shot from the other side. Handling and photographing the large items presented additional challenges. A low temperature and a stable humidity are best for these textiles; large fluctuations in temperature need to be avoided at all costs. Consequently, we also had to work in a cooled environment. Although it was lovely summer weather outside, we were bundled up in our warmest winter clothing. Photo: Kees Zwaan
For research and the public
The client, the Province of North Holland, was first and foremost interested in photographs that would facilitate further research: so the objects are removed from their protective packaging as little as possible. That is why using a ‘scientific’ (measurable and repeatable) approach was best. Yet, the photos are also intended to make this exciting collection accessible to a broader public via publications and the Internet. My challenge was to serve both objectives: not only to accurately represent colour, texture, details and size, but also to appeal to the imagination of viewers.
More questions than answers
A large number of experts are involved in the investigation of the BZN17/Palmwood wreck: their stories clearly reveal the amazing nature of the project. And perhaps it is actually the unanswered questions that make this undertaking so exciting. We don’t know who the dress belonged to; the oriental garments are also shrouded in mystery. The ship has not yet been identified, but the logging date of the wood (1641) is certain. Given the discoveries, it has been speculated that the ship was a returning straatvaarder. Trade with the Mediterranean region in the 17th century was of great economic importance for the Dutch Golden Age, while comparatively little has been published about this. We hope to acquire even more of an understanding of that period thanks to the Palmhout wreck. Large parts of the ship are still buried in the sea bottom, well-protected under sand and scaffold netting, and the investigation is far from over.
Interested in learning more?
The (Dutch) book: Wereldvondsten uit een Hollands schip, Basisrapportage BZN17/Palmhoutwrak, Arent D. Vos et al. (Province of North Holland, Haarlem, 2019), was published in March 2019. Read more about different aspects of the research and the current status of the project in this richly illustrated and fascinating account.
I would like to extend my thanks to the Province of North Holland, the shipowner, who commissioned me for this assignment. The objects discovered are currently being stored in depot at the archaeological museum Huis van Hilde, in the village of Castricum. Eventually these archaeological findings will be exhibited at Museum Kaap Skil on Texel: a new building is planned to house this unique collection.
This article was published for the first time in March 2019.