Tsunami and Salvage: The Archaeological Landscape of the Beeswax Wreck, Oregon, USA

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Formation Processes of Maritime Archaeological Landscapes

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Unidentified shipwrecks were a relatively common sight on the beaches of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America in the nineteenth century, as recorded in accounts written in newspapers and journals of the period. Such wrecks were common enough that they typically warranted only brief mention, and the vessels were usually assumed to be Asian junks or early traders or whalers who wrecked on the coast before the settlers moved in. One wreck, however, drew much more attention due to its unusual cargo and a set of unique circumstances that led to the concentration and later visibility of that cargo: the Beeswax Wreck of Nehalem, Oregon. The Beeswax Wreck was a large vessel constructed of Asian hardwoods, carrying a very large cargo of beeswax in the form of candles and blocks marked with Spanish shipping symbols. Both the beeswax and ships timbers, along with porcelain vessels and other items of flotsam, were concentrated on the barren, Aeolian sandspit separating the Nehalem River from the ocean. This wreckage was deposited above the reach of tides and storm waves, and on a spit of unvegetated sand which alternately covered and exposed wreck materials as Aeolian dunes migrated across the spit. The mechanism of this deposition was a large tsunami that deposited buoyant wreck material on tsunami strandlines of the spit and river valley, creating an archaeological landscape formed first by the wreck processes, then reshaped by the tsunami, and then reshaped again as first local Indians and then later Euro-American settlers mined the wreckage for valued goods and a rumored treasure. Changing environmental conditions, including tectonic uplift, sand accretion, and stabilization of the spit dunes by non-native vegetation have altered the landscape even more since the vessel wrecked. This unique set of events and environmental conditions that preserved wreckage for archaeological investigation allows us to say with some certainty that the vessel was the Manila galleon Santo Cristo de Burgos, which left the Philippines in 1693 and was never seen again.


This chapter is part of the When the Land Meets the Sea book series.

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