Nottingham archaeologist uncovers secrets of sunken ‘pirate city’ in Jamaica

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A diver records the submerged walls of Port Royal using stereo-photogrammetry. (Photo:

A Nottingham archaeologist has mapped a lost sunken pirate city in Jamaica using 3D technology.

Dr Jon Henderson, from the University of Nottingham, carried out a high resolution survey of the underwater ruins of Port Royal.

Once a haven for pirates to trade, drink and launch attacks, a large portion of the settlement was lost in a devastating earthquake in 1692.

Experts have since been trying to record what lies beneath the surface so the city can be better protected.

Dr Henderson has now used new technology to create a precise digital model of its ruins in three dimensions, with photo-realistic detail.

His findings will be shown in a new documentary being broadcast on the National Geographic Channel on Wednesday (July 26).

Dr Henderson said: “Port Royal is a true sunken city – but not only that, it is a catastrophic site. It went down so quickly that it was sealed in a moment in time.

“It’s sometimes called the Pompeii of the New World. The earthquake captured Port Royal at its prime – everything people were using now lies sealed under the silt in Kingston Harbour. It is the only sunken city in the Americas (that we know of) and it was the English centre in the Caribbean in the 17th Century.”

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Port Royal, Jamaica. Thousands of people died in an earthquake which submerged half the town in 1692. (Photo: MSP Productions)

The town was the English mercantile capital of the New World, and as such, an important and wealthy centre for trade and commerce for the entire West Indies. Known as the ‘Wickedest City on Earth’, Port Royal was famous for its loose morals, pirates and bullion.

Dr Henderson’s findings will support a bid for UNESCO World Heritage status, reinforcing Port Royal’s global importance and helping to conserve the site for the future.

He added: “The Jamaican government have wanted to put in this bid for some time, but to do so they have to have a plan of the site itself.

“This has been particularly tricky due to the poor visibility of the site. It is only now that new technology has allowed us to go there and carry out this survey.

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Dr Jon Henderson working on the photogrammetry model of the site. (Photo: MSP Productions)

“The site is actually covered in silt and redeposited coral, so it is buried under about 6 to 10 ft of deposit. This is great from an archaeological point of view, because a lot of the site will be sealed, meaning it is in excellent condition, but it limits what can be seen.

“New technology is opening up submerged archaeology for the first time. Now we can do photo realistic 3D surveys of what is actually under the sea and show it to people, which was not possible before.”

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Old map of Port Royal. Light section at top and going down toward the right is the part of the city lost in 1692 earthquake; slightly shaded middle section part of city that was flooded; darkly shaded bottom section is part of city that survived.

Dr Henderson directed the archaeological survey of the site, and the project is a research collaboration between the Drop Lab, University of Michigan and the Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney.

‘Drain the Sunken Pirate City’ will premiere on the National Geographic Channel on Wednesday at 9pm.

 

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