The city of Cascais is a vacationer’s dream. Located on Portugal’s coast and just west of Lisbon, the city boasts casinos, sandy beaches, scenic seaside cliffs, and natural parks filled with brilliant sand dunes. But Cascais is more than just a luxurious travel destination.

In 2018, researchers spotted an anomaly in the results of geophysical surveys taken just off the coast. Officials and scholars launched an investigation into the curious spot and uncovered what many have called one of the most important archeological finds of the last century…

During the Age Of Exploration, Portugal expanded its relatively small nation by conquering several territories overseas. With colonies in South America, Africa, and Asia, trade provided the country with spices, foreign artworks, and more.

With help from the Portuguese government, researchers at Nova University in Lisbon spent years studying this era of the country’s history. In September of 2018, they made quite a breakthrough in the tiny town of Cascais…

Aside from its sunny and sandy beaches, this town is also a popular spot for boaters due to its spacious marina located right in one of the town’s most popular areas. It also has a rich history.

Ana Luzia/Time Out

Its marina may be filled with yachts and personal sailboats now, but it used to welcome a very different kind of fleet. The area, which is currently flooded with tourists and upper-class Portuguese travelers, was once filled with adventurers.

During the 16th century, Cascais was a crucial spot for Portuguese trade ships. The Tagus is the main river flowing through Portugal, so large ships traveled it to reach the ocean.

Luis Mendes, Portugal’s Minister of Culture said the Tagus river was considered a hotspot for trade in the era of wooden ships, but that didn’t mean it was safe. The river is filled with large rocks, making it a dangerous route.

Paulo Spranger

And when archeologists made an astounding discovery just off the coast in September of 2018, Mendes said it proved how crucial the Tagus was to the history of Portugal.

The archeologists’ project director and maritime expert agreed with Mendes. “From a heritage perspective,” Jorge Friere, “this is the discovery of the decade.” So what did they find? 

Jorge Freire/LinkedIn

Friere and his crew found a 400-year-old shipwreck! “We found the ship using a geophysical survey and divers,” he said, “and spent four days working on the site.” And this wreck was special.

It was remarkably well preserved, and so were some of the items found on the ship. Among several little treasures was a fragment of Chinese pottery from the Wanli period in the Ming Dynasty, which was incredibly helpful in dating the ship.

Zhu Yijun was the Wanli emperor, the 14th emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He reigned for 48 years starting in 1572, which meant this ship landed on the bottom of the river around that time, at the end of the 16th century or the start of the 17th.

That particular period was the height of the spice trade for Portugal, so it came as no surprise when archeologists also discovered black pepper, a commodity so valuable at the time that it was often used as collateral or even currency. However, this wasn’t the only alternative “currency” on board.

Sadly, the wreck also contained several cowrie shells from a type of sea snail. Cowrie shells come with a dark past, as they were often used as currency in the slave trade in many parts of Africa. What that tells us is this ship visited several continents all in one trip — but not without risk…

The last and largest items found in the river were several bronze cannons. A ship carrying such valuable goods was at risk for piracy and other looters, so the cannons served as protection against unfriendly ships, assuring the goods would make it back to Portugal safely.

The cannons were engraved with Portugal’s coat of arms, which is still found on the Portuguese flag. This cemented the discovery as an important cultural relic for the coastal nation, and that was how the wreck was treated.

“This is one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the century,” said Cascais Mayor Carlos Carreiras. “The recognition from the scientific community that this is the discovery of the decade, the century, in terms of marine archeology, is for us of great satisfaction.”

Estoril Conferences

While skilled archeological divers quickly removed parts of the wreckage that were at risk, the rest of the wreckage will remain in the river indefinitely for experts to explore.

This unnamed trade ship is not the first wreckage to be found in the Tagus River. Nearly a century older, another ship sank in 1606 when it was trying to seek safer anchorage in the Tagus during a wind storm. Unfortunately for those on board, it didn’t end well.

Maria Eklind

It struck a submerged rock and went down close to the shore. Lost in that wreck was a massive amount of black pepper, which completely covered the river, to the delight of the people who lived on the river who eagerly scavenged what they could.

This ship, which researchers discovered was called the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, was first detected in 1993 and excavated between 1996 and 2001. If a ship in such a broken state could be identified, there was a great chance this new ship could be identified, too.

F. Alves

The recent finding of the Cascais shipwreck is attracting even more tourism, so the government has displayed some of the divers’ photos at the Santo Antonio Fort in Sao Joao do Estoril. Who wouldn’t be curious about such a grand historical find?