Maritime archaeology and 3D digital libraries: a case study of Dutch merchant ships (1595–1800)

Author: John McCarthy

McCarthy, John, 2020 Maritime archaeology and 3D digital libraries: a case study of Dutch merchant ships (1595–1800), Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


This thesis investigates the value of 3D digital libraries to support maritime archaeological investigations of historic vessels, through the capture of contemporary scale models of Dutch ocean-going merchant ships (1595 to 1800). During this time the Netherlands rose to become a leading maritime power, developing international trading networks in spices and slaves as well as whaling, fishing and cargo transport. Despite prolonged scholarly interest in these ships, typological classification of their design remains embryonic, as it does for many pre-modern vessel types. Treasure hunters and natural decay are partly to blame, but a literature review shows that established archaeological recording methods produce data that is difficult to integrate into comparative frameworks. Production of 2D orthographic outputs is prioritised, even after the advent of underwater photogrammetry, though this captures only a highly abstracted record of a spatially complex object, encouraging a qualitative, subjective and narrative analysis. As a result, research into these ships has often been based mostly on historical, rather than, physical evidence, displaying heavy reliance on theoretical archetypes. Because archaeological survey tends to flatten the material culture though 2D outputs, it also fails to engage with the inherently visual and spatial nature of the ship as a complex machine. The inherent limitations of these approaches have resulted in the sidelining of the ship within the shipwreck investigation, with few studies that attempt quantitative classification of vessel types or tracing of long-term trends.

The explosion of 3D underwater recording in the last decade has revolutionised maritime archaeological survey, but also offers a potential solution to these problems. A methodology is developed here for the creation of a 3D library of ships, based initially on digitised contemporary scale models, which provide an ideal dataset for defining and overcoming key challenges relating to measurement, scale, classification, data format and visualisation. A substantial fleet of Dutch ship models scanned in museums across Europe provides a baseline for comparison with other forms of spatial evidence, including scans of shipwreck on the seabed, and historic plans and charters. Established methods are combined with novel 3D digital methods to provide a wealth of new insights into the both models themselves and into Dutch merchant ship design and variability over time. The study concludes with two in-depth archaeological case studies, where shipwrecks with well-preserved hull remains are analysed using data from the library and other spatial datasets, demonstrating how even fragmentary shipwrecks can be incorporated into digital libraries. Throughout the study, the power of 3D workflows to re-engage with the visual nature of ships is explored, culminating with a virtual dive over one of the shipwrecks. The benefits from the digital 3D library approach are manifold but address both the processual and post-processual perspectives of the discipline. It is proposed that researchers engaged within the discipline of maritime archaeology should consider diverting their efforts from individual shipwreck surveys towards collaborative development of 3D libraries of historic vessels.

Keywords: Digital Archaeology, Maritime Archaeology, 3D modelling, 3D scanning, Dutch ships, Dutch East India Company, shipwrecks

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Wendy van Duivenvoorde