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NAVIGATION: Vasco da Gama’s 1503 astrolabe found in shipwreck

PortandTerminal.com, July 7, 2019

Mariner’s astrolabe recovered from shipwreck is the world’s oldest. The navigational device comes from the wreck of the Esmerelda, part of Vasco da Gama’s fleet that sunk off the coast of Oman in 1503

OMAN – While searching for shipwreck remains near Oman in the Arabian Sea in 2014, divers discovered an unusual metal disk that has since proven to be the world’s oldest known mariner’s astrolabe, British researchers report.

A metal disk found at a shipwreck site near Oman is the oldest known mariner’s astrolabe, a device for navigating at sea. The navigational device dates back to as early as 1496

The navigational device came from the wreckage of a ship in the Portuguese armada that had been part of explorer Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India from 1502 to 1503. Historical decorations on the artefact led the researchers to suggest that the disk was used as early as 1496.

What is an astrolabe?

14th-century English astrolabe (left) / Woodcut print (1554) showing a man using an astrolabe to measure the height of a building (right)

Mariner’s astrolabes are circular devices that sailors used to measure the altitude of the sun or stars, which allowed them to calculate their ship’s latitude. 

The first recorded use of an astrolabe was on an expedition by a Portuguese explorer in 1481, but the earliest versions were likely made of wood and did not survive the ages. 

A 3D-laser scan of the astrolabe reveals tiny, eroded-away etches in the top right quadrant that would have allowed navigators to measure the altitude of the sun or stars to determine their ship’s latitude. Credit: University of Warwick

Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. His initial voyage to India was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and therefore, the West and the Orient.

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