Just a few years after Christopher Columbus famously reached the Americas instead of India, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama established the actual India Route when he sailed around the southernmost tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean in 1498. Now archaeologists say they think they've found the Esmeralda, one of his fleet's ships that was lost in May 1503 during a second voyage to India. Found off the coast of Oman, a press release from the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture and shipwreck recovery company Blue Water Recoveries describes it as "the earliest ship from Europe's Age of Discovery [mid-15th to 17th centuries] ever to be found and scientifically investigated." An interim report published Monday in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology explains that of an estimated 219 ships to have been lost along the Carreira da India from 1498 to 1650, no identified wreck "can be conclusively dated earlier than 1552"—until now.
The wreck was first discovered off the coast of Al Hallaniyah island in 1998; the team spent just 20 minutes snorkeling before they began to see the first signs of it, reports National Geographic. Excavation began in 2013 and National Geographic describes some of the standout and potentially identifying items among the more than 2,800 artifacts recovered: some 35 stone cannonballs bearing the letters "VS," possibly the initials of Vincente Sodré, da Gama's uncle and the commander of the Esmeralda; he and his crew are said to have gone down with the ship. Also a silver coin, called an Indio, so rare that there is only one other known to exist; the latter has been dubbed the "Ghost Coin of Dom Manuel I, " after the Portuguese king who had it minted. (This famous shipwreck isn't done revealing its secrets.)