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Hispaniola, a name redolent with tales of pirates and the riches of the New World, is giving up treasures in simple pewter too.

Just off Punta Cana, the easternmost point of the island, the remains of a ship and its cargo of European trade goods were found in 2011. Probably a Spanish merchantman out of Seville, the vessel had nearly reached the end of its long and hazardous crossing of the Atlantic when it came to grief. We do not yet know the identity of the ship, but we do know it must have sunk between the late 1540s and the early 1560s.

For two and a half years divers have worked to recover the cargo, often having to chisel through several inches of rock to reach the artefacts beneath. What they found is astounding: an intact export cargo of non-perishable wares, made in Europe in the mid 16th century.

Chief among the finds are some 1200 pieces of pewter tableware, enough to lay a banquet for more than 100 diners.

This is the largest assemblage of pewter ever discovered, and that it should be of such early date is doubly amazing. About a third bears the mark of Alderman Sir Thomas Curtis, the most important London pewterer of the 16th Century, Mayor of London in 1557 - his mark also appears on much of the pewter from the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship, lost in 1545.

Tens of other makers' marks have been recorded, many of which can now be attributed to pewterers who worked in London, Antwerp and Bruges. Like a Rosetta Stone, this discovery is serving as a key to help interpret much more about the pewter and pewterers of the 16th century.

The condition of the pewter is astonishing: some is as good as it was when it left the workshops in London and Low Countries.

Without the familiar patina pewter acquires when exposed to the air, we can now better appreciate Harrison's observation from hisDescription of Englandin 1577: "a garnish of good… English pewter [is] esteemed almost so precious as the like number of vessels that are made of fine silver".

Pewter makes up about half the cargo from Punta Cana. Other finds include brass bowls and weights from Nuremburg, Venetian-style glass, bronze mortars cast in Castilian foundries, bars of tin likely mined in Cornwall, brass candlesticks, Andalusian ceramics, bone combs perhaps made in Paris, ivory pocket sundials, thimbles, bundles of cloth (from which only the leaden cloth seals survive), and a wide range of other common trade goods of the time.