When hobby divers revisited a nearly 400-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Texel, they discovered more than 1,000 objects in wooden boxes. Eight years later, postdoc Janet Dickinson used recovered books to compile a profile of the mysterious owner.
Divers retrieved chest after chest of Italian pottery, richly embroidered clothing and leather book covers, but it was not known to whom these items belonged. Initially, researchers thought they were dealing with someone from the royal Stuart family from England. Indeed, one of the books had a Stuart bookmark and was probably written in English, while Latin, French, German and Italian were more common. ‘That sort of inclined us towards an English owner. Although it was an exciting possibility, it turned out not to be right because of the location of the shipwreck,’ Dickinson says. Nonetheless, the book covers themselves provide a glimpse into another world and much can be revealed by studying them closely.
So like a true Sherlock Holmes, Dickinson dove into the books again. One of the first clues she saw were dozens of tiny holes, indicating woodworms. ‘The owner probably had these books on a shelf. Since the binding was also partly made of wooden boards, the woodworm nibbled through the leather to escape through the other side,’ Dickinson explains. ‘Because of this, several books were in horrible condition. They would have been falling apart in your hands. That leads me to believe it was someone’s personal collection, because those books would have been quite hard to resell.’
Although the books were severely damaged, Dickinson also managed to uncover some small personal details on the book covers that further corroborate the idea that it was someone’s personal collection. ‘You obviously have the initials that show that someone cared enough about the book to put their initials on it, but there is also a doodle of a little bird on a book cover,’ Dickinson tells. ‘Somebody had this quite expensive leather-bound book on their desk and either they or their child scratched a little bird into the cover. That is the hand of someone who handled this book.’
Who exactly this mysterious owner was, however, remains difficult to say. Dickinson’s research took her across the European continent. The collection includes a book from a Polish noble family, while some of the other books in the collection seem to be from Lithuania, Germany and the Netherlands. ‘This gives me a general profile of who owned these books. It is someone who is potentially multilingual and who has traveled around, probably into the Ottoman Empire through Germany. In addition, there is a link to the Netherlands and England, so it is someone who has travelled around those areas,’ says Dickinson.
Another possible clue is the age of the books at the time of the shipwreck. ‘The youngest books in the collection were made about twenty or thirty years before the ship went down. This could mean that this is perhaps a dead person’s collection,’ she explains. A less thrilling explanation would be that there were more recent books on board, but they simply hadn’t had the chance to get bound into leather yet. ‘If that was the case, they would have dissolved in the water.’
Those who are curious to uncover the identity of the owner have the possibility to visit the accompanying exhibition on the retrieved items on the island of Texel. Some of the book covers are also on display. Dickinson urges people to reach out to her if they have a candidate in mind. ‘If we keep looking together, we will find more details and evidence that helps us to tell this story.’