Divers are racing against time to preserve the wreck of a Dutch treasure ship which sank off the British coast.
The Dutch merchant ship De Rooswijk carrying chests of silver ingots, silver dollars and pieces of eight hit treacherous sandbanks in January 1740.
The ship, on its way to buy nutmeg and pepper in the East Indies sank, killing all on board – some 250 men, women and children.
Partial recovery work was carried out on the wreck in 2005 – and parts of its cargo recovered, but conservationists fear that the wreck could be destroyed.
Now several reinforced wooden chests – expected to contain precious metals -have been recovered and are being stored under water.
But now conservationists, fearing that the ship’s was threatening to break up underwater have launched an urgent recovery operation at Goodwin Sands, in Kent.
The shifting sands and strong currents off the coast of Deal threaten to destroy the wreck in the next few years.
While buried in sand the ship is protected.
But as the sand rolls, exposing the ship’s timbers, this puts it at the mercy of the tides, as well as from rogue treasure hunters.
Martijn Manders, leader of the excavation, and working for the Dutch government, owns of the vessel said: ‘The Goodwin Sands has been a treacherous place for ships throughout the centuries and is now a treasure trove for archaeologists.’
A further threat is from a Mediterranean shipworm, increasingly finding its way to the UK, which could chew away at the timbers.
Mark Dunkley, a marine archaeologist from Historic England, which is in charge of protecting the site said: ‘The ship is threatened by a new type of ship worm which has come from the Mediterranean Sea and is moving north because the sea around Britain is getting warmer with climate change.
‘It’s reached as far north as Felixstowe so any shipwreck below that latitude is threatened by it.
‘It burrows into any wood which speeds up decay and makes the wrecks vulnerable. It attacks the timbers and wooden chests.
‘So it’s important that we start conserving these things now to prevent any more damage.’
Little is known about the crew of the ship, skippered by Daniel Rousiers, which first sailed to what was then Batavia – modern day Indonesia – in 1737.
It sank on the second day of its second voyage in 1740.
To recover objects, the team use a machine to carefully suck up the sand from the site, revealing buried artefacts.
Three large chests have been recovered from the current excavation which may contain bullion.
The archaeologists will carefully open the chests slowly after they are X-rayed to discover what is inside, to ensure nothing might be inadvertently damaged in the process.
The divers have also recovered spoons, shoes, belt buckles, pipes, pewter tankards, glassware, ornate knife handles, and musket balls.
Several cannons are still on the sea bed.
Several silver ‘Pillar dollars’ – minted in Mexico – have been found on the ship along with silver pieces of eight.
The research team believe that some of the silver was being smuggled by sailors for their own personal trade.
The items recovered from the sea are being stored in fresh water and will be on display to the public in Ramsgate.
Divers are also beginning to recover human remains from the 26-metre-long ship – bones which can be examined and tested for DNA to get insight into the lives of those on board.
Mark Dunkley, a marine archaeologist from Historic England explained ‘With the finds that we’re bringing up we’re seeing how they lived on board, and now with the remains we are seeing how they died as well.’
It would be too expensive to pull the whole ship out of the sand, store and conserve it, as happened with Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose, recovered in 1982 off the coast of Portsmouth.
Mr Dunkley said the shipwreck site had been monitored since it became a protected site in 2007. He said: ‘Our last survey was last year when more material was exposed than ever before.’
Researchers in the Netherlands are combing archives for further information about the De Rooswijk.
Mr Dunkley said: ‘There were probably some women on the ship.
They could have been ‘guests of the lower deck’, a term for prostitutes.
He said that in most archaeological sites are graveyards where people have died naturally.
Finding the remains of healthy individuals who died in the prime of their life ‘Is like an underwater Pompeii’, Mr Dunkley said.
‘We’ve got that population at the minute that castastrophe happened.
‘It’s very rare to find a grave and know how that person died.
‘Here we know everyone drowned or were crushed prior to drowning.’
In 2004, diver Ken Welling visited the wreck, and retrieved two complete chests and hundreds of silver bars.
Several hundred Mexican silver cobs of the 1720s and early 1730s, and transitional ‘klippes’ that date to around 1733 have been recovered.
Hundreds more ‘pillar dollars’ have also been discovered and sold at auction.
As well as wrecked ships, in 2000 a crashed German Dornier Do-17 Z bomber, downed in 1940 during World War II was recovered from the sands.