What a Shipwreck’s Tree Rings Reveal

This text was initially printed at The Dialog and has been republished beneath Artistic Commons.

The wrecking of the Dutch East India Firm ship Batavia in 1629 is maybe the best-known maritime catastrophe in Australian historical past. The topic of books, articles, performs, and even an opera, Batavia was wrecked on a sequence of small islands off the coast of Western Australia.

Of Batavia’s 341 crew and passengers, 40 drowned making an attempt to get off the ship, whereas all others made it to the uninhabited islands close by. The captain, senior officers, two girls, and one baby left in one of many ship’s boats to get assist. However additional tragedy adopted.

A group of males on the islands who had gathered across the performing commander intentionally drowned, strangled, reduce the throats, or brutally hacked to demise 125 kids, girls, and males. When the rescue social gathering returned months later, they managed to overpower this demise squad and convey the remaining survivors to security. Along with its many victims and the murderers, Batavia’s wreckage was left within the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago.

The Dutch ship was 45.3 meters lengthy and 600 metric tons in dimension. It sank on its maiden voyage to Southeast Asia. The shipwreck was discovered within the Nineteen Sixties off Morning Reef and was excavated within the Seventies.

This illustration features a sizeable sailing ship with large beige sails on tall masts and a dark brown body with a white outline around the front of it. A smaller brown boat is just in front of the sailing ship.

A white define within the stern part of this illustration of Batavia reveals the preserved port-side and transom of the ship. Ross Shardlow

The surviving stern part, now in Fremantle’s Western Australian Shipwrecks Museum, is the one portion of any early Seventeenth-century Dutch East India ship raised from the seabed and preserved.

Previously, historians may solely guess the place the timber for such ships got here from, when it was felled, or the way it was used, as archival information of Dutch timber commerce earlier than 1650 are uncommon or misplaced.

But in new analysis, we studied the tree rings of the Batavia shipwreck timbers. We’ve discovered that the oak for the hull was sourced from two separate forests (in northern Germany and the Baltic area), with wooden for the framing parts coming predominantly from the forests of Decrease Saxony. The timber was processed shortly after the timber have been felled (in 1625 or later) and was nonetheless inexperienced when the shipbuilders reduce and bent the planks into form.

Okaynowing extra about these timbers helps us perceive the Dutch success in world commerce, together with how they managed to construct such massive ocean-going vessels and so lots of them.


Batavia’s stays present a uncommon archaeological useful resource for tree-ring examination as a result of precise dates of its building and sinking are identified.

Construction started someday within the spring of 1626, and the ship set sail from Texel (the Netherlands) to the East Indies (identified as we speak as Indonesia) in October 1628. It struck a reef on June 4, 1629. As Batavia had by no means undergone repairs or upkeep work, we all know each piece of timber belongs to the unique construction.

When Batavia was constructed, the Dutch have been the foremost shipbuilders in Europe. By 1640, for instance, round 1,000 seagoing ships have been being constructed within the Netherlands annually, largely for export markets.

The Dutch lacked home timber sources to provide the bustling shipbuilding trade and but would have wanted a whole bunch, maybe hundreds, of oak timber to construct Batavia.

Wright here did all this timber come from? The Dutch East India Firm archives present no detailed data on the place its shipyards purchased timber on the time of Batavia’s building. Whereas the corporate saved detailed information from the mid-Seventeenth century onward, hardly any of these from the early 1600s have survived.

Fortunately, tree rings can present solutions to these questions. Bushes in temperate local weather zones type a progress ring annually, just below the bark. This sequence of progress rings produced over years and many years acts like an environmental bar code, a progress sample that’s explicit to the place the place they grew and died.

A person wearing a dark shirt and jeans holds a borer they use on the side of the wooden body of a boat section while another person in a dark shirt stands beside them.

Marta Domínguez Delmás and Aoife Daly extract a pattern from the Batavia ship with a dry-wood borer pushed by an influence drill. Wendy van Duivenvoorde/Flinders College

This progress sample may be very related for timber of the identical species rising in the identical space.

By measuring the ring widths from many timber, a reference tree-ring chronology will be constructed. Then, we are able to cross match the expansion sample of a selected timber to such reference chronologies, establishing when the tree was felled and the place it had grown. This subject of research is often known as dendrochronology.

The many Batavia timbers we sampled had solely heartwood, or inside rings, demonstrating that Dutch shipbuilders discarded the sapwood (outer rings). Sapwood is softer and comprises substances that make it extra susceptible to insect infestation and decay.

Furthermore, the outermost heartwood ring of the Batavia hull planks that we sampled dates to 1616. When accounting for the lacking sapwood (9 rings for Baltic oak), this implies the timber have been felled in 1625 or later.

The timber was processed shortly after the timber have been felled. All this demonstrates that Batavia’s builders have been expert craftspersons, intimately accustomed to the properties of the wooden they used.


The oak timber utilized in Batavia’s hull planks got here from two forests. Bushes from close to Lübeck in northern Germany have been used above the ship’s waterline, whereas timber from the Baltic area of Northeastern Europe was utilized solely under the waterline.

This Baltic timber was prized by artists like Rembrandt, who used it for panels on which to color. Bushes from this area had superbly straight trunks with very effective progress rings, making the wooden simple to work and secure.

Obviously, firm shipbuilders valued these similar properties when constructing ships sturdy sufficient to endure a number of return voyages to Southeast Asia. They prevented utilizing timber with knots within the hull and most well-liked wooden from which they might vogue lengthy and robust planks.

Four images show black-and-white segments of a boat with highlighted portions in yellow, green, pink, blue, and purple.

These 4 illustrations present the distribution of the dated timbers in some elements of the Batavia shipwreck, coloured by provenance (inexperienced: Baltic oak; yellow: Lübeck; blue: Decrease Saxony 1; purple: Decrease Saxony 2; pink: Sweden). (A) Inside hull planks, (B) Outer hull planks, (C) Transom planks, (D) Framing parts. Aoife Daly, Marta Domínguez Delmás, Wendy van Duivenvoorde

In distinction, we discovered that the timber for Batavia’s framing parts got here predominantly from the forests of Decrease Saxony (northwest Germany). Frames utilized the sturdy properties of those oaks’ curved wooden fibers. Because it was sourced nearer to residence, this timber could have been cheaper and simpler to accumulate.

Our research was solely potential as a result of Batavia’s hull was raised in its entirety. Waterlogged wooden is mushy, so extracting samples from the timbers whereas nonetheless beneath water is at all times difficult. It additionally would have required chopping out massive sections of the ship to entry all of the totally different parts.

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