MARINE ARCHAEOLOGY

 

Introduction:

At the bottom of the seas and oceans lies a common heritage for Humanity i.e. the innumerable cultural, historical and archaeological artefacts of sunken shipwrecks.

 

Spanish golden coins, Dutch ducats, gold ingots from Peru, silver ingots from Bolivia or Mexico’s mines, Aztec emeralds and fine Chinese porcelain amount to one third of the listed treasures on our planet still sleeping on the sea bottom in Spanish galleons, Portuguese carracks, East Indies Companies ships, Chinese junks or steamers of the beginning of 20th century.

 

Some specialists assert that 40% of all man’s precious metals extracted since Antiquity are still lying at the bottom of the sea.

 

‘The sea is considered as the world’s greatest museum !”  (Erick SURCOUF)

 

 

History:

The saga of underwater treasure-hunters began at the beginning of the 16th century, precisely at the time when European colonisation was forging ahead, seemingly without limit, to distant southern lands both to the east and to the west.
To the west, the Spanish had discovered the New World and its fabulous riches which, up until the beginning of the 10th century, was sent back to Spain in the vast holds of their famous galleons.
To the extreme south and then navigating east following in the wake of Vasco de Gama, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, the English and finally the French discovered the Indian Ocean, the Indies and the Far East.

 

 

In 1687, the Englishman William Phips, with his naked native divers managed to recuperate a part of the cargo of 'Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion', which sank on the Silver Bank, in 1641. Twenty-six tons of precious metals, which included gold and silver bars, 2 000 gold coins, diverse potteries and porcelains were brought to the surface.

 

In 1742, an Englishman, John Lethbridge, invented a sort of barrel into which he could fit his entire body. With a 'port-hole' for visibility and with his arms protruding through two holes in the barrel, he descended into the depths of the ocean. He brought to the surface 400 silver bars from the cargo of the Dutch ship the 'Slot Ter Hooge', which sank in 1724, in Madeira.

 

 

Between 1917 and 1924, divers salvaged the biggest treasure from the ‘Laurentic’ wreck, a former 1 500 tons liner, transformed in cargo-boat, sunk in 1917 by two mines in the Atlantic. This salvage has the best record : nearly 43 tons of gold for an actual value of about US $ 600 M.

 

In 1932, a team of divers, on board the ‘Artiglio’, an Italian coaster converted into a research vessel, prospected the holds of the cargo boat 'Egypt', which sank off the Brittany coast in 1922, and salvaged 1,089 gold ingots'.

 

 

In 1941, the divers of an Australian company, the ‘United Salvage Company’, dived on the 13 415 tons Niagara’ wreck, sunk by two mines on june 19, 1940 off New-Zeeland coast. They salvaged a treasure of 8.5 tons of gold ingots !

In the early 50s, came the invention of the 'traditional' diving suit with its helmet. This gave divers a new freedom of movement and allowed man to really discover marine space.

In 1969, an American tourist, Kip Wagner, disembarked in Grand Cayman Island (south of Cuba), and to pass the time whilst on holiday, he hired a snorkel, goggles and a pair of flippers and went exploring the shallows of the bay in front of his hotel. Imagine his surprise when on his first time 'out', he discovered a magnificent gold cross encrusted with diamonds, lying in the coral and buried under a few centimetres of sand, and a large gold disc weighing more than a kilo.

A subsequent search established that these objects consisted of part of the cargo of theSantiago', one of Hernan Cortez' galleons which sank, containing Aztec treasure, while returning to Spain in 1522.

 

Among the last resounding discoveries that were in the newspapers, we can quote :

 

-1976 : € 3 millions. Discovery, in Santo-Domingo, of the Spanish galleon wreck ‘Conde de Tolosa’ sunk in 1724.

Salvage of a cargo made of mercury, one hundred diamonds, one thousand rare pearls, engraved German glasses and graceful English watches, small bronze cannons, silver plates, porcelains, tin plates, wine-bottles, jewels…

 

-1978 : € 10 millions. Re-discovery, on the Silver bank, at the north of Santo-Domingo, of the Spanish galleon wreck of ‘Nuestra Señora de la Concepción’ sunk in 1641.

Salvage of a cargo made of more than 60,000 gold and silver coins, gold and silver ingots, gold plates, gold chains, Chinese Ming porcelains, three astrolabes and several objects in ivory…

 

 

-1985 : € 24 millions. Discovery, in Indonesia, of the Dutch VOC vessel wreck ‘Geldermalsen’ sunk in 1752.

Salvage of a cargo made of 160,000 pieces of porcelain and 127 stamped Chinese gold ingots.

 

-1985 : € 130 millions. Discovery, in Florida, of the Spanish galleon wreck ‘Nuestra Señora de Atocha’ sunk in 1622.

Salvage of a cargo made of gold coins, 50 kilos of gold bars, gold cups, 54 meters of gold chains and collars, gold rings with emeralds, 60 kilos of silver coins, 18 silver bars, silver dishes…

 

-1986 : € 800 millions. Discovery, in the Bahamas, of the Spanish galleon wreck ‘Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas’ sunk in 1656.

Salvage of a cargo made of gold and silver bars and coins, silver ingots and coins, 44 emeralds (one of them weighs 200 carats), Chinese Ming porcelains, gold works of art…

 

-1989 : € 12 millions. Discovery, in Vietnam, of the Chinese junk wreck ‘Vung Tao’ sunk about 1690.

Salvage of a cargo made of 28,000 pieces of porcelain.

 

-1992 : € 5 millions. Discovery, in Philippines, of the Spanish galleon wreck San Diego sunk in 1600.

Salvage of a cargo made of more than 1,500 objects : 400 silver coins, silver dishes from Mexico, gold jewels, 1,200 pieces of Chinese porcelain, one astrolabe, a compass… This treasure has been show in exhibitions in Paris, Madrid, New-York and Berlin.

 

-1993 : € 4 millions. Discovery, in Malaysia, of the English vessel wreck ‘Diana’ sunk in 1817.

Salvage of a cargo made of 24,000 pieces of porcelain.

 

-1999 : € 11 millions. Discovery, in Indonesia, of the Chinese junk wreck ‘Tek Sing’ sunk in 1822.

Salvage of a cargo made of 350,000 pieces of porcelain, sextants, pocket watches, cannons, coins…

 

-2004 : € 400 millions. Discovery, in Indonesia, of the Chinese junk wreck (unidentified) sunk in the 10th century.

Salvage of a cargo made of 400,000 pieces of porcelain and precious stones.

 

 

AND MORE ARE STILL LYING AWAITING THEIR DISCOVERERS.

 

Today's divers have come a long way from the heavy suits and helmets of their predecessors. They now have at their disposal ultra sophisticated equipment from Proton magnetometers, sonars, highly sensitive metal detectors, to computer systems and computerised robots, which can record the smallest details of the seabed.

It was thanks to the articulated arms and pincers of one of these robots nicknamed 'Nemo', that in 1990, a team was able to lift 3 tons of gold from the 'Central America', which sank off South Carolina in 1857. And this from a depth of - 2,700 metres!
The rich 'heritage', considered for so long to be lost for all time to the world, is now, not only more easily accessible (thanks to the modern equipment), but also, by using a scientific approach and controlled conservation methods, we are permitted to treat the artefacts, thus ensuring their safeguard after their long sojourn under the sea.

 

Once bought to the surface and having received the appropriate treatment, we believe that the artefacts should then go on to be displayed in the museums of the world and become the subject of travelling exhibitions for everyone's enjoyment.

 

THE PRECIOUS CULTURAL HERITAGE THAT THESE SHIPWRECKS REPRESENT IS UNDER THREAT TODAY.

 

Certain archaeologists think that there is no hurry to localise and salvage these artefacts. They argue that they have been lying under the sea for several centuries, and therefore what difference would another decade or two make?
We agree (in principle), that this is a perfectly justifiable argument, if one didn't need to take into account pillaging, pollution and other factors such as port construction.

 

As far as 'pillaging' is concerned, one must question how much of it could be avoided and countless thousands of precious artefacts saved from the hands of their casual discoverers, if the legislation in certain countries (e.g. France) was more logical and provided a gratifying financial reward to divers. A different approach would encourage divers to systematically, duly and honestly report their discoveries to the authorities.
As the law stands today, there is no 'incentive' for divers to report their findings and so therefore their 'discoveries' are hastily stashed into the holds of their boats and more likely than not, end up being off loaded onto the 'black market' with the tragic result that their cultural and historical significance is lost for all.

 

 

THE CHANGING FACE OF PRIVATE MARINE ARCHAEOLOGY TODAY.

 

Today, Private Marine Archaeology is being more and more talked about and is fast becoming a recognised emerging industry in its own right.
While still maintaining a scientific, historical and cultural aspect as its first priority,
Private Marine Archaeology has also a respected economic viability holding the promise of enormous profits.


Scientific progress in electronics, detection techniques and diving equipment, permits us today, to reduce dramatically the 'risk factor' of bygone days and the cost of initial localisation research per square kilometre. The 'risk factor' is further reduced by ready access to research in the world's archives (both written and iconographic), which is placed in the hands of qualified professionals. This is to say that we know before we set out, what we are looking for and where to look for it within a precise geographical locality.