Pirates' hoard of treasure found

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Surplus loot and exotic possessions discarded by Elizabethan and 17th-century pirates, privateers and merchants have been discovered by archaeologists in London's East End.

Surplus loot and exotic possessions discarded by Elizabethan and 17th-century pirates, privateers and merchants have been discovered by archaeologists in London's East End.

Excavations 100 feet north of the Thames in Limehouse have unearthed substantial quantities of 350- to 400-year-old Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Iranian, Chinese, Dutch, French, German and Portuguese pottery along with beautiful Italian glassware and 16th-century Mexican bronze coins.

The dig also yielded a cannon ball, a piece of silver jewellery and fragments of two exotic animals - a tortoise and a bear, probably from North America. And just a few yards away, previous excavations found a fragment of coral and a marrow seed, both from the New World, as well as bits of chainmail and leadshot.

Most of the discarded ceramic items were not of types usually exported commercially from their countries of origin, and the area where they were found was home to known pirates and privateers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Archaeologists suspect that some of the material was from captured ships or their cargoes brought back to London by English sea captains between around 1580 and 1650.

The items were unearthed in the area where four 16th- and 17th-century privateers - William Bushell, Christopher Newport, Michael Geare and a Mr Paramour - are known to have lived. Captain Bushell, who attacked a Barbary pirate stronghold in North Africa in 1636, lived just 30 feet from where the pottery and other material was found. Captain Paramour lived 60 feet away. Christopher Newport, who led more raids on Spanish Caribbean shipping than any other English sea captain and who lost an arm while trying to capture a treasure galleon off Cuba, lived in the same road - Narrow Street - where the archaeological finds have been unearthed.

One of Newport's associates, the privateer, pirate and smuggler Michael Geare, also lived in the area.

The excavated material came from land that was probably owned by a pirate or privateer - possibly Bushell or Paramour or more likely an as yet unidentified colleague of theirs.

In the 16th and very early 17th centuries, the site was occupied by timber-framed houses which appear to have belonged to seamen, probably privateers engaged in attacking Spanish shipping. Most of the Spanish pottery dates from the late 16th century when Elizabethan England was at war with Spain, and Good Queen Bess was busy handing out privateering commissions entitling English sea captains to attack Spanish galleons.

The Spanish bronze coins, minted in Mexico and sometimes over-stamped for use in Cuba, found on the site and in the immediate surrounding area in previous excavations also date from the 16th century.

Then, sometime in the first half of the 17th century, the timber-framed houses were demolished and replaced by much more substantial brick-built residences with thick walls and Flemish tile floors.

It is likely that the change in building quality and status simply reflects the increased wealth that pirates, privateers and merchants living in Narrow Street won for themselves by the early 17th century. Even more privateering wealth would have flowed into the area in the late 1620s when the English crown issued large numbers of privateering commissions against the French and Spanish.

The £100,000 excavation - funded by the London-based property developer St James Homes - has also been revealing the privateers' surprisingly plain culinary tastes. An examination of food debris from the site shows that the privateers and their associates mainly ate beef and fish, especially cod and whiting. Some mutton and small amounts of pork also featured on their dinner tables as did turkey, duck and chicken, which was an expensive delicacy in those days.

The archaeologist who directed the dig, Douglas Killock of the London-based excavation unit, Pre-Construct Archaeology, said that the discoveries are "extremely unusual".

"Because of the non-commercial nature of most of the pottery, the discovery of Mexican coins in and around the site, and the area's known links with privateers, we suspect that much of the material was plunder seized by English pirates and privateers from Spanish and other ships in the 16th and 17th centuries,'' he said.