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Ship Sunk Four Centuries Ago Virtually Reconstructed

3-D cyber replication at Texas A&M

Published: Monday, January 2, 2012 - 15:36

Sunk in 1606, the Portuguese merchant ship Nossa Senhora dos Martires is sailing again—in 3-D presently but perhaps one day in reality. If the cyber-replicated vessel ever does hit the high seas, the way will have been paved by the research of a persevering Texas A&M University nautical archaeologist combined with the high-tech applied study of a graduate student well-versed in computer-based visualization techniques.

The 3-D resurrection of the 17th-century vessel, whose name translates to “Our Lady of the Martyrs,” is the handiwork of Filipe Castro, an associate professor of anthropology who grew up in Portugal, and Audrey Wells, who made the three-year project the basis for her master’s degree thesis in visualization sciences. Wells is now a freelance artist in Austin.

A unique set of circumstances brought them together, combining the work of two of Texas A&M’s best-known programs worldwide. Castro had been a civil engineer in Portugal’s Ministry of Culture and been assigned to the ship’s excavation project. Leaders of the project encouraged him to obtain a graduate degree in nautical archaeology, which he successfully pursued through the program at Texas A&M, where he now serves on the faculty.

Wells is a product of the Visualization Laboratory, a trailblazing program that incorporates computer-generated graphics and animation in particularly innovative manners. The program’s graduates are highly sought by Hollywood producers, among others, who want state-of-the-art video graphics.

Their work is the basis for an extensive article published in the fall 2011 edition of American Bureau of Shipping’s Surveyor, with a follow-up article posted on the website of the Department of Visualization in Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, which provides a link to the Surveyor article.

The model Castro and Wells produced is described in the Surveyor article as replicating the vessel “in its entirety, including full scantlings, internal construction details, outfitting, and the sail plan, such that seakeeping, stability, and other analyses can be performed.”

The meticulous work was accomplished even though only about 10 percent of the ship’s hull was ever recovered, meaning Castro and Wells had to rely heavily on analysis and interpretation—and applied visualization.

Audrey Wells takes a look at the 3-D model of the 17th-century Portuguese merchant vessel

“Audrey and I would meet once a week; she would ask questions, work on my hypotheses during the week, and e-mail me image files as she progressed, which I would mark up and return; then we would meet the next week and take the process a step further,” Castro explains in the Department of Visualization article. “Every time we solved one problem, we solved several. For example, a space occupied by a capstan or a locker can’t be occupied by something else. Every correct solution reduces the number of possible answers for other questions, making it all a very exciting, iterative process.”

Castro also credited Professor Fred Parke, associate head of the Visualization Department, with key assistance in solving some customized computer problems encountered during the project.

According to the account in the Surveyor, the ship went down on Sept. 14, 1606, when caught in a deadly storm while trying to seek safety in an estuary of Portugal’s Tagus River, the site of numerous earlier shipwrecks and only a few leagues away from a safe return to its home port. It was on the final leg of a nine-month voyage from India and was laden with more than 500 tons of precious cargo, including 220 tons of peppercorns, described in the article as an extremely valuable commodity—prompting the tragedy to become known as the “Pepper Wreck.”

Aside from the commodities loss, the ship was carrying 450 people, according to historical records cited in the article.

The Nossa Senhora dos Martires was of a class of ship known as the Portuguese nau, an armed merchant vessel, of which only three have ever been excavated, thus making the model exceptionally valuable for historical purposes.


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Texas A and M News and Information Services

Texas A&M News and Information Services is a part of Texas A&M University’s Division of Marketing and Communications. News and Information Services serves as the central point for all universitywide news, information, and related initiatives. Opened in 1876 as Texas’ first public institution of higher learning, Texas A&M University is a research-intensive flagship university with 38,000-plus undergraduates and more than 9,000 graduate students studying in more than 250 degree programs in 10 colleges.