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The San Isidro Shipwreck - 16th Century Boatbuilding | [Cabangan Municipality, Zambales Province]

The San Isidro Shipwreck - 16th Century Boatbuilding | [Cabangan Municipality, Zambales Province]

The San Isidro Shipwreck, which dates to the 16th century – around the time of our ancestors’ first European encounter. This contributes to historical claims that there exists trade with neighboring countries even before Ferdinand Magellan and his crew reached our shores.

San Isidro Shipwreck
A portion of the San Isidro shipwreck’s exposed planks.

This wreck site was found during an underwater survey conducted by the National Museum of the Philippines and the Far Eastern Foundation for Nautical Archaeology at a depth between 42 to 44 m and about 9 km from the shoreline of Barangay San Isidro, Cabangan Municipality, Zambales Province.

San Isidro Shipwreck vessel’s wooden remains
The mound of concretion covered much of the vessel’s wooden remains, hampering proper documentation.

From January to March 1996, systematic excavations revealed a small vessel roughly 15 m long and 6 m wide buried under about 50 cm of sediment, including 5 cm of Mt. Pinatubo ash. The sunken craft was carrying predominantly trade and utilitarian ceramics that date to the 16th century, along with iron bars, cooking cauldrons, a small knife, betel nuts, coconut, and a piece of almaciga. The corrosion of the iron objects created a large mound of concretion that adhered to and obscured most of the vessel’s wooden remains. 

Drawings of the San Isidro planks and keel.
Drawings of the San Isidro planks and keel.

Wood samples taken from the wreckage revealed a keel made of molave (Vitex parviflora) and planks made of narra (Pterocarpus indicus). Archaeologists who observed the wooden remains suggested that the vessel was a locally produced plank-built boat like garay, parao and barangay, used to transport cargo and passengers from larger ships unable to sail close to shore.

Southeast Asian boatbuilding
A comparison of clinker (overlapping) and carvel (edge-to-edge) plank construction. The San Isidro shipwreck exhibits both. Public domain image.

The vessel was partly built with dowels and edge-joined planks, common in Southeast Asian boatbuilding. Uncommonly for the region, it exhibited overlapping planks, referred to as clinker construction, fastened with rope. An even rarer construction, having both kinds of plank construction in one vessel, referred to as “half-carvel” or mixed planking, was also observed on the vessel.

Objects recovered from the San Isidro wreck site are housed at the National Museum of Anthropology (NMA), which has closed again due to community quarantine restrictions. In the meantime, know more about our work and collections through this series, and expect an upgraded exhibition on three centuries of maritime trade soon. Here is also a link for the virtual tour of selected exhibitions at the NMA to give you a glimpse of parallel trade ware ceramics:

Our heritage and recounting its narrative through material culture benefits future generations and our aspirations as a nation. If you see or have knowledge of sites being looted, report immediately to your local government authorities or contact the closest #NationalMuseumPH office near you.


Text and poster by the NMP Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Division

San Isidro photos by F. Osada, ©Far Eastern Foundation for Nautical Archaeology

©National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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