Discovering the sunken pirate city

 Port Royal - reduced
25 Jul 2017 16:32:22.150

PA 175/17

Research uncovering the secrets of the 17th century pirate town of Port Royal in Jamaica, which was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1692, will be showcased in a new documentary.

‘Drain the Sunken Pirate City’ will premiere on the National Geographic Channel on Wednesday 26 July at 9pm, and will show how experts have used new state-of-the-art technology to uncover the secrets hidden beneath the waters of Jamaica’s Kingston Harbour.

Underwater archaeologist Dr Jon Henderson, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham, carried out a high resolution survey of the partially submerged 17th century settlement site, to enable him to create a precise digital model of its ruins in three dimensions, with photo-realistic detail.

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‘A true sunken city’

On June 7th 1692, Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake, quicksand and a final crushing blow of a tsunami.  Two thirds of the city was wiped out, sending it to the bottom of the sea. This new documentary will reveal for the first time what lies on the seabed using sonar scans and digital models, which provide new insights in the sunken ruins.

Dr Henderson said: “Port Royal is a true sunken city – but not only that, it is a catastrophic site. It went down so quickly that it was sealed in a moment in time. It’s sometimes called the Pompeii of the New World. The earthquake captured Port Royal at its prime - everything people were using now lies sealed under the silt in Kingston Harbour.

“It is the only sunken city in the Americas (that we know of) and it was the English centre in the Caribbean in the 17th Century.”

The ‘Wickedest City on Earth’

The town was the English mercantile capital of the New World, and as such, an important and wealthy centre for trade and commerce for the entire West Indies. Known as the 'Wickedest City on Earth', Port Royal was famous for its loose morals, pirates and bullion.

Dr Henderson adds: “If you’ve seen the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Port Royal is the first town they go to where the Jack Sparrow character is introduced!”

Dr Henderson’s findings will support a bid for UNESCO World Heritage status, reinforcing Port Royal’s global importance and helping to conserve the site for the future.

Dr Henderson continues: “The Jamaican government have wanted to put in this bid for some time, but to do so they have to have a plan of the site itself. This has been particularly tricky due to the poor visibility of the site. It is only now that new technology has allowed us to go there and carry out this survey.

“The site is actually covered in silt and redeposited coral, so it is buried under about 6 to 10 ft of deposit. This is great from an archaeological point of view, because a lot of the site will be sealed, meaning it is in excellent condition, but it limits what can be seen.

Underwater cultural heritage

“New technology is opening up submerged archaeology for the first time. Now we can do photo realistic 3D surveys of what is actually under the sea and show it to people, which was not possible before.  Previously we could only rely on drawings, photos and video but now we are at a point where people who would never have seen a submerged site before (unless they were a diver) will be able to see exactly how these sites appear on the seabed. This technology is key to raising awareness about the importance of underwater cultural heritage.”

Whilst Dr Henderson directed the archaeological survey of the site, the project is a research collaboration between the Drop Lab, University of Michigan (USA) and the Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney. It was funded by an Ocean Explorers grant from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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Story credits

More information is available from Dr Jon Henderson in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham  at

Charlotte Anscombe – Media Relations Manager (Arts and Social Sciences)

Email:  Phone:+44 (0)115 74 84 417 Location: University Park

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Published Date
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