At the dawn of the seventeenth century a Dutch skipper is sailing his watership towards the fish market in Amsterdam. A precious load of flounders is kept alive in the brackish river water that flows through tiny bottom piercing holes into a fish well contained in the hold amidships. The skipper must have seen the skyline of Amsterdam disappear when for some reason the ship goes down in at least four metres of water, not to be found again until the year 2007. The surviving fish bones are still contained in the fish well of the shipwreck designated VAL7. When the wreck is lifted from the river bottom in September 2009 for the purpose of archaeological research, a newspaper asserts that this workhorse of the Golden Age in the Dutch Republic must have been a successful ship type. Not only did famous Dutch seventeenth century painters feature the watership as a symbol of economic power, it also serves as an example of tradition in Dutch shipbuilding. The watership has distinct features that essentially remain unchanged over the four centuries of its existence. As the newspaper argues, why should money and effort be spent on experimentation with a ship design if it works?
This paper is based on the excavation report of VAL7 (Waldus, 2010) and on data from the NWO Odyssey program. The watership is one of those archaeological gems of which forty wrecks have been registered over time in reclaimed land from the former Zuiderzee as local farmers detected them while working the land (fig. 1). Twelve of these have been sufficiently documented to enable a more detailed analysis. In two cases sufficient archaeological data was available for a reconstruction model (fig. 2). Notably the first model is lap-strake while the later model has a flush hull. More construction differences were found when analysing the VAL7 wreck found in a river entrance to Amsterdam and the twelve documented waterships from Flevoland.
Figure 1 Location in Flevoland of 40 wrecks of waterships from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (courtesy of André van Holk). Flevoland is reclaimed in the twentieth century from the Zuiderzee. The reference map on the right depicts the Zuiderzee area and the region of Holland in 1610, just before the lakes north of Amsterdam are reclaimed (
Figure 2 Archaeological reconstruction models of the watership hull. Left the lap-strake model of ZM22 and right the flush hull model of OW10. (Photo Cultural Heritage Agency dept. Lelystad).
The VAL7 is the first watership wreck underwater that is raised from the bottom. This article will start with a brief account of this event as an example of how underwater archaeology is conducted in The Netherlands. The VAL7 will then be compared to other watership wrecks to identify constructional differences, after discussing some considerations on the dataset. Finally the data is assessed on a more general level to find indications for change in ship design. The central question is how observed changes in construction and design should be interpreted? What is driving change, is it ship function dynamics or do variations and trends in Dutch shipbuilding practice change ship design? What is revealed about the dynamics in Dutch shipbuilding in general?
A glossary at the end of this article will help to navigate through the unfamiliar terms related to ships and shipbuilding.