In Lake Titicaca, a mysterious 19th  century wreck

In Lake Titicaca, a mysterious 19th century wreck

Exploration by a diving archaeologist of the Titica Project in Sampaya Bay in July 2017. Exploration by a diving archaeologist of the Titica Project in Sampaya Bay in July 2017. TEDDY SEGUIN/ULB

At a depth of 5 meters, under a layer of sediment, a wreck more than a hundred years old was found, which was probably a steamer May 2, 2022 by a team of divers in Lake Titicaca, on the shore of the Island of the Moon (Bolivia). At 24.5 meters long and almost 4 meters wide, it would be the tallest wreck in the world studied by archaeologists – Lake Titicaca sits at 3,812 meters. Covered with a layer of algae, it was invisible but could be spotted thanks to a drone.

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Diving archaeologists spent two weeks excavating this boat, confident of learning valuable lessons from maritime history. Discovered in 1968 by Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) during a highly publicized mission that would be the subject of the documentary film The Legend of Lake Titicaca, the wreck has been relatively forgotten ever since. It was of limited archaeological interest to researchers at the time, as they believed its sinking was dated to 1940. Too new to arouse curiosity.

Today, new data suggests that the wreck and its sinking were actually older. “Probably around the turn of the century or around 1910,” estimates Belgian Christophe Delaere, co-director of the Project Titicaca archaeological survey mission. It would be a large steamboat introduced on the lake in the 1870s (and construction earlier) that was dismantled to be converted into a cargo ship that hauled ores.

Precious excavation notebook

Christophe Delaere could count on a valuable object for his current research: the excavation notebook of the Frenchman Frédéric Dumas (1913-1991), one of the archaeologists of the 1968 mission. A very detailed manuscript that allowed both sketches and drawings to be presented as descriptions him to locate the wreck, which was not visible to the naked eye.

Oral tradition has it that the boat sank on a stormy night at the quay, poorly anchored in an old 19th-century port. Archaeologists found the tiller and rudder, as well as ropes, tin cans and a leather sole. “We study the boat, its naval architecture, its hull and try to find the shipyard that built it… Was it English? asks Christophe Delaere. There is still a lot to discover, he says.

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Also, according to the oral tradition of the inhabitants of the island of the moon, two boats actually sank in the waters of the lake that same night. The one excavated, the Jach’a-Emilia, the “great Emilia” in Aymara (the vernacular), and a smaller one called Marcela, which the diving archaeologists have not yet found.