Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-1 (October 2012)Thijs Maarleveld; Alice Overmeer: Aanloop Molengat – Maritime archaeology and intermediate trade during the Thirty Years’ War1
4 Discussion: interpretation, historical context and meaning

4.5 Significance and further avenues of research

The Aanloop Molengat discovery and project perfectly illustrate the diversity of heritage significance at different levels and in different contexts. Significance is not a static fact. There are many contingencies that determine whether it is created at all (Maarleveld 2010). In the exploration of new environments, such as the North Sea bottom, or new types of archaeological sites, such as early modern ships, significance and its development are highly dependent on popular images of what an explorer is meant to explore (Eelman 1986; Maarleveld 2007; Holtorf 2007). But there are intrinsic factors as well. They need to be recognised early on, preferably by the discoverers, but can develop only through research.

The significance of the individual find categories lies in what they contribute to the quantitative and technological study of production processes in the early modern world. Half-finished and intermediate products stand out, as these are not normally available for study. The assemblage as a whole represents an accidental cross-section of industries, each with their own structure and scale. The sectors range from the culturally diverse rural livestock processing and primary tanning, to the urban domestic industry of pin-making, large government-controlled mining operations, early modern steel production and the modernised urban cloth industry. At the micro-level, material studies of these tangible shipments help to unravel what has been called the chaîne opératoire both technologically and in terms of social organisation (Lemonnier 2002). For some of the materials presented, such as the iron bars, this approach can be further elaborated.

The combined cargo, its packing and composition contribute to our understanding of distribution and routes, the organisation of intermediate trade, stocking, warehousing and stapling. It is obvious that only a selection of related questions is addressed here. Analysis of the plethora of merchant marks on ingots and the body of lead cloth seals that are tentatively attributed to merchant houses is just one aspect that calls for further scrutiny.

In its intricate detail the material approach of the archaeological Aanloop Molengat project is a relevant complement to the analyses of socioeconomic historians such as Posthumus, Coornaert and others in the Annales School, and the synthesising work of De Vries & Van der Woude (1995) on the economic development of the Dutch Republic. It is equally obvious that such detailed work informs the conceptualisation at the macro-level of narratives on social change, on the development of the modern world and on any competitive technological edge on the part of the West (Vries 1995; Pomeranz 2000; Palumbo-Liu 2011). A condition for this significance is the accessibility of the source material in the context of its assessment and analysis, which is what the present overview of primary data and underlying analyses is attempting to achieve.

If we apply the Annales School’s classical division of time, the significance of the Aanloop Molengat assemblage as presented above is mostly at the longue durée pace of time of very slowly changing structures and the cyclical pace of the upswinging economy. This also applies to the study of ship structure. Despite rudimentary plans to cut out and lift a section, the ship itself did not become a priority in the Aanloop Molengat project. Nevertheless, construction is discussed at some length, as it complements ongoing discourses in ship-archaeological research.

At the more contingent level of histoire événementielle, significance could lie in the direct identification of shipment by an individual merchant, presently concealed behind one of the many individual merchant marks and cloth seal tags. It can also lie in the development of an explanation for the wrecked cargo as such. Although somewhat remote from the general strength of archaeological information, it could for instance be interesting to pursue and test the hypothesis that the heavy cargo in this large ship was destined for France, or more specifically, for its armies. Richelieu faced constant problems of supply and it is not inconceivable that overtly or not, his accord with the Dutch Republic’s governors, who were all in one way or other closely connected with maritime trade, would have included the supply of iron, lead, leather, cloth and ammunition, adorned with some ivory and purple cloth .... It is an aspect that could well have been neglected in both Dutch and French historiography.

The significance of the Aanloop Molengat project for the development of underwater archaeology is another aspect altogether. Methodological choices and pioneering have widened the scope of fieldwork experience in the Netherlands and beyond, thanks to broad international involvement. Technical possibilities and impossibilities, strengths and weaknesses of mixed teams, successes and failures in photo documentation were all part of this. The pivotal role of the discovery of the site and subsequent decisions in setting the course for the legal protection of underwater cultural heritage is a certainty that adds to its significance in terms of the history of the discipline.