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Unique astrolabe discovered in Galicia's Viveiro estuary

With more than 30 known sunken ships, the Viveira estuary in the northwestern Galician autonomous community of Spain is a valuable underwater archaeological site. 

Unique astrolabe discovered in Galicia's Viveiro estuary
Credit: La Voz de Galicia

That these were not the only ships to sink in the estuary was confirmed in 2012, when two diving enthusiasts happened upon two cannons possibly dating to the 16th century. 

It was suggested that these canons may have belonged to the galleon San Bartolome, which sank in 1597, though no trace of the ship has been found to confirm this theory.

Last september, however, a team of fifteen researchers led by underwater archaeologist Anton Lopez discovered an astrolabe dated between 1575 and 1622, which has further deepened this mystery.

It is the first astronomical instrument of its kind found in Galicia and the 108th of its kind documented anywhere in the world. For centuries they were used by navigators to orient themselves and calculate the position of ships. 

Classified as a mariner's astrolabe, it is made of bronze, and measures 21 centimetres in circumference and weighs 4.92 kilos. It is "unique in the world", explains Anton Lopez, "because none of the other 107 known astrolabes combines the three-lobed ring with the harpoon-shaped alidade. 

The ring forms the base, a piece in the shape of three 'fingers', adapted to hold it better. The alidade is the rod that rotated on the circular base allowing it to be positioned by aligning it with the sun or a known star. It is also remarkable for being "among the ten best-preserved" on the planet.

This discovery is "very important", says Anton Lopez, "it represents high technology in marine navigation, an instrument built to order and handcrafted". 

For the fourth consecutive year, the Northern Submerged Cultural Heritage Team, created by the Spanish Federation of Underwater Activities (Fedas), has been investigating the submerged heritage in the Viveira estuary. 

While no wooden remains have been found, the team suggest that the astrolabe could have been on one of the cargo or warships from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. These include a galleon, an urca (similar to a frigate), a filibote or a pinaza (made of pine wood).

Although the astronomical instrument was located in what they called the Viveiro I site, the archaeologists have yet to finish documenting which ships belong to which vestiges that "appear regularly" in the area around the islet to the east of Area beach, where the two cannons that could date from the late 16th or early 17th century were also found.

These two pieces of artillery are still submerged, covered again by sand, due to the sea currents which also brought the astrolabe to the surface. 

The researchers have extracted the astrolabe and are currently in the process of restoring it to its original condition.

The astrolabe is part of "an unknown wreck" from which new discoveries are expected, especially "the naval architecture of the ship, of which there are no historical references", says Anton Lopez.

As part of Galicia's archaeological heritage, the astrolabe will be temporarily transferred to the Museo do Mar in Vigo.

Source: La Voz de Galicia [trsl. TANN; October 13, 2021]

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