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Nautical Archaeology Field School

Student diver excavating 17th century Dutch shipwreck in Monte Cristi Bay, Dominican Republic.


The Monte Cristi Shipwreck Project

Under the direction of Dr. Jerome Lynn Hall, Nautical Archaeologist at USD.


WHAT? Excavating a shipwreck AND university credit !
WHEN? Summer
WHERE? The north coast of the Dominican Republic
WHY? Because it's the experience of a lifetime (and you need the credit)!

Looking for summer adventure but need to work on your degree plan?  Ever dream of living on a deserted island?  Does excavating a 17th-century shipwreck sound like something in which you'd be interested?  Then why not consider getting field experience in underwater archaeology and university credit at the same time?  The Anthropology Department at the University of San Diego (USD) is offering a summer field school in the Dominican Republic!  

Anthropology 399: Post Medieval Seafaring and Empire is the course for which you've been waiting!  You'll be able to get up to three hours of credit in Anthropology and have the experience of a lifetime!

The Monte Cristi "Pipe Wreck" lies at a depth of 4.4 meters in a bed of sea grass in Monte Cristi Bay, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic near the Hatian border.  The wreck earned its moniker from the inordinately large number of clay tobacco smoking pipes that were carried as cargo aboard the vessel.  Archaeological data indicate the wreck is the remains of a merchant trader.  Historical and geographical information suggest the vessel may have ventured in search of salt, or, perhaps, to trade with the contrabandistas and boucaniers common to the region during the second half of the seventeenth century.  Comparative cultural material from contemporary sites indicates most cargoes were intended for European-American outposts on the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States of America, although at least one cohortof trade goods was specifically for Native Americans.

    The Monte Cristi "Pipe Wreck" is a 17th-century northern European shipwreck that lies in Monte Cristi Bay, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic (near the Haitian border).   Pipes—numbering in the tens of thousands— were the principal cargo aboard this  vessel that foundered in the shallow water off Isla Cabra, sometime between 1651 and 1656.

The uninhabited desert island—Isla Cabra (Goat Island)—serves as our summer base camp.  We pitch our tents on the southern shore beneath a grove of trees.  The wreck lies in 15 feet of water approximately 100 yards off the island's eastern shore.

Several research questions have defined this Monte Cristi Shipwreck Project investigation since its conception:  Does the archaeological record suggest an inbound or outbound voyage for the vessel represented by the wreck? Was the north coast of Hispaniola the primary destination, or was the ship en route to North or South America?  In light of the fact that the wreck has been heavily salvaged for over three-and-a-half centuries, are there sufficient archaeological data to accurately interpret the site? 

To date, there are overwhelming data—both historical and archaeological—to indicate the vessel was inbound to the Americas and likely destined for the Upper Hudson River Valley.   Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that, although heavily salvaged, the site still holds tremendous potential for future excavation, study, and interpretation.

With these tentative but suitable explanations to the preliminary research questions, researchers from the 2001 campaign sought information to answer an additional question: why did the vessel sink in the shallow water of a relatively well-protected bay?

The Monte Cristi “Pipe Wreck” is important for at least nine reasons:

First, there is a relatively small corpus of archaeological data for Dutch shipwrecks in the New World. 

Second, the cargo of clay tobacco pipes from this wreck is, to date, the largest known assemblage of smoking related artifacts ever recovered from an archaeological site.  Many more clay pipes remain to be excavated. 

Third, it is the only submerged site from which funnel elbow-angled pipes are known. These items were clearly manufactured for, shipped to, and traded with Native Americans.  This alone makes it a unique cargo, for such categories of trade goods are scarce in the annals of shipwreck archaeology. 

Fourth, the proposed temporal framework (1652–1656) and the propounded origins of the vessel and cargo place this wreck in the middle of a volatile competition between the English and Dutch for maritime, mercantile, and military supremacy in both Europe and the Americas.   The “Pipe Wreck” may be one of the few maritime cultural resources that help to shed light on this fascinating era of history.  

Fifth, Hispaniola’s northern coast—especially during the middle of the seventeenth century—is a region about which little is known from the historical record.  Any information garnered from this archaeological study will provide a welcome addition to the history of both the island and the Caribbean basin.  

Sixth, historical records dealing with the northern coast of Hispaniola, though scant, indicate that northern European merchant vessels offloaded finished goods in clandestine bays.  These cargoes were exchanged for resources and raw materials such as salt, leather, and tobacco.  All of these were abundant in the region of Monte Cristi during the seventeenth century.   The “Pipe Wreck” fits well what little we know about these ventures, therefore making it a significant cultural and historical resource. 

Seventh, the vessel represented by the Monte Cristi “Pipe Wreck” was clearly involved in triangular trade, linking three geographical areas together in a commercial venture.   Although triangle trade is well described in the historical literature, there are relatively few shipwrecks that can provide this information for archaeological study.  

Eighth, even though incomplete, the cargo from the Monte Cristi “Pipe Wreck” is, to date, one of the largest and most diverse cargoes recovered from an inbound merchantman destined for the American continents.  It may, in fact, only be rivaled by La Belle, one of the supply vessels brought to the Gulf of Mexico by the French Explorer La Salle at the close of the seventeenth century. 

Ninth, and lastly, although the archaeological context of the  “Pipe Wreck” is less than desirable (there is evidence of profound site disturbance over the past three and one half centuries), it is believed that sufficient interpretive data exist to effectively reconstruct the vessel’s construction, lading, numerous voyages, and demise.  Therefore, not all disturbed archaeological sites should be viewed as worthless.  Even those so deemed by the archaeological community may—if managed properly—yield tremendous information.

JOIN THE TEAM and get credit!

Visit the colonial city of Santo Domingo and learn about the early Spanish colonial empire in the New World!  Travel to La Isabela, the finest European settlement in the New World where Christopher Columbus lived. 

Cost per student: Contact Dr. Jerome Lynn Hall, 619-260-7865 or