The chest of 100 sabres - intricate designs


Conservator Carola Del Mese joined the conservation team at Historic England in 2022 where she was introduced to the Rooswijk project. Carola writes about working on one of the remarkable finds of the Rooswijk wreck: a chest full of sabres. In the first part of this blog, she describes the cleaning process of the sabres. In this second part, she tells about her discoveries.

In 2017 and 2018, excavations were undertaken on the protected wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Rooswijk. Maritime archaeologists from the RCE, Historic England and MSDS Marine spent two seasons diving the site of the wreck at the Goodwin Sands, recovering ship’s timbers, artefacts and concretions. A concretion is an accumulation of sediment, shells, silt and marine deposits which gather around a (usually) iron object, forming a hard, rock-like ‘concretion’, often gathering in surrounding objects. The result is a rock-like formation with objects inside. In the first blog, Carola describes the process of untangling such a concretion, and about the process of cleaning the chest and the blades that were found inside. Read more about what she discovered on the blades:


During the cleaning of the 100 sabres, I discovered that both sides of the blades were etched with intricate designs. Etching is a process which involves an acid, etching designs into the metal, rather than engraving, which is done by using a sharp tool. Etching is a more cost effective and efficient way of decorating many objects in a mass-production process than engraving, which must be done individually.

[Click on the photos to enlarge]

At the base of the blade, nearest to the tang, was a row of stars or asterisk patterns. Higher up was a half moon, with a face, facing either to the left or right and decorated with dot and asterisk patterns. Above this were more stars and a detailed sun with a smiling face, and above this, a symbolic cloud with a hand coming out, holding a sabre. This is generally taken to symbolise the hand of god, smiting the enemy. The final design was a long, striped, wavy snake, with the head almost at the tip of the blade, and a forked tongue sticking out.

[Click on the photos to enlarge]

I discovered that these designs were not related to the Dutch East India Company but were designs commonly used on bladed weapons across Europe and even into Africa and the Middle East at the time. The foundry would have used a design book which the craftspeople copied onto the swords. It was evident that the designs were hand drawn, as each one was different, sometimes very much so, with the faces of the suns and moons varying from comical to serious.

Detail of blade with design
Fig 24. Detail of blade with design

To add to the decoration, I discovered the remains of gold coloured foil on all parts of the etching, so the entire weapon would have looked very flashy! Analysis of the ‘gold’ leaf revealed that it was brass, which is still today used as fake gold leaf and is sometimes called Dutch metal.

Finally, a foundry mark is still present on the tang of several blades (fig 25). Despite some research, I have not yet discovered the origin of this mark, although it is similar to some blades produced in Solingen in Germany around this time.

Detail of blade with design
Fig 25. Detail of blade with design

And finally….

At the time of writing, all the swords have been disassembled from the original concretion, and I have finished secondary cleaning on 72 of them. It took approximately two months to disassemble the chest initially, and so far has taken approximately three months of secondary cleaning, with an average of one sword finished per day.

This project has been fascinating, not only as a conservator, but as silver coins were the only cargo which was recorded, each additional object we discover gives us an insight into life on board the Rooswijk, and the logistics, scale and extent of global trade in the 1700’s. Identification of the foundry mark would further shed light on the manufacture of the trading goods, and influence of the Dutch East India Company, and I am sure there is plenty more to learn from this project.

The #Rooswijk1740 project is led and funded by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) in collaboration with Historic England and MSDS Marine Ltd.