Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Christopher R. DeCorse


Elmina, Ghana, Shipwreck, Underwater Archaeology

Subject Categories



This dissertation focuses on the excavation and interpretation of two European ships discovered at Elmina Ghana, the coastal site of the first and largest European fort in sub-Saharan Africa. Discovered in 2003, the first vessel, located 1.5 miles offshore of the castle, is largely comprised of remnants of cargo exposed on the seafloor. European trade wares recovered from the site suggest a mid-seventeenth century vessel, most likely of Dutch origin. AMS radiocarbon dates obtained from several fragments of wood recovered in cores taken at the site support this assumption. The second vessel was discovered by accident during the 2007 dredging of the Benya River, a small lagoonal system that empties into the sea at Elmina. Largely destroyed during the operation, identifiable remains included fifteen timbers and three cannon. Dendrochronology and ship construction techniques indicate the remains to be those of an early eighteenth century Dutch vessel. The two ships thus represent different time periods, historical settings, and archaeological contexts. Yet, the value of both to the reconstruction of the West African past lies with both their local and global contexts. On one hand, they represent unique insight into the construction of the European ships that traded on the coast and their cargoes. On the other, data on their cargoes and associated artifacts provide information on trade and exchange in a world area that has received little attention from underwater archaeologists.

Often times the work of underwater archeologists has been criticized for producing particularistic interpretations lacking wider context and theoretical synthesis. Shipwrecks were investigated for their intrinsic value, an emphasis was given to spectacular objects, and the literature resulting from these excavations was primarily descriptive in nature. In my dissertation I argue that such deficiencies can be countered by incorporating a theoretical framework which engages both the nomothetic and particularistic. To a large extent, the questions that confront studies of shipwrecks are problems of scale: how do we move from the minutia of cargoes and the specificity of an event to wider social processes? Methodologically, how do we decide what data are to be collected and evaluated? Conceptually, what is it that we seek to understand from our studies? Grappling with these questions I draw upon the methodological and conceptual insights afforded by microhistory, the Annales school, and Braudel's three scales of history. I propose a dialectical interpretation of shipwrecks attentive to the intersection of local patterns and global forces in the shaping of history. Utilizing macro-scale historical generalizations (i.e. trade patterns, cargoes, ship, and artifact characteristics) archaeologists can interpret, and identify the micro-scale event (nationality, date, vessel name, wrecking event). Once done, the particulars of the site in turn afford means of understanding large-scale social processes.


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