Charting Spain's sunken treasures

5th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

For many years, archaeologists and academics have complained about Spain’s lack of interest in its sunken heritage. New plans to protect the country’s claims on historical shipwrecks show a turnaround in attitude.

Spain has taken the first step toward making an inventory of its sunken vessels scattered across the bottom of the world's oceans. A new map, prepared by underwater archaeology specialists Nerea Arqueología Subacuática (NAS) on behalf of the Culture Ministry, locates ships lost when Spain was still a major naval power, and is a key move by the Spanish government to protect this part of the country's heritage from treasure hunters.

But the map is far from complete. Much of the ocean is still inaccessible, and thousands of other wrecks lie undiscovered, many likely to contain valuable cargos of gold and silver, while others could offer vital historical information. The value of such treasure could amount to more than EUR 100 billion, some experts say, while others believe that the true figure is incalculable.

That said, Spanish law forbids the trade of anything that is considered to be part of the country's heritage. This raises the question of whether private companies should be involved in the search for sunken vessels, in return for a part of any treasure found.

"It is important that people know that Spain forbids trading in archaeological finds," says Javier Noriega of NAS, who has overseen the preparation of the inventory. "Spanish archaeologists don't see the goods on board a wreck as something to make money out of," says Noriega, who is fiercely critical of the methods used by treasure hunters. "We don't talk in terms of treasure. We are interested in research and what that research can tell us about the past."

So far, the list only includes those vessels that have been located, such as la Mercedes, which sank in 1804, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, lost in 1715, El Bretendona, 1554, and El Ángel Bueno, 1563. The majority of the sunken ships went down between the 16th and 19th centuries, when Spain oversaw an empire in the Americas and the Philippines.

Most of the vessels located on the map sank while travelling between Spain and the Americas - the so-called India Run - which saw ships bring back gold and silver from the colonies there. Storms, navigational errors, naval battles and piracy all sent countless vessels to the bottom of the sea, with their cargos still intact.

Nobody has any doubt as to just what has been the catalyst to create a map that definitively establishes Spain's claim to its wrecks - whether in Spanish waters or otherwise. The reason lies with the row sparked by US salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration. One of the world's leading specialists in tracking down undersea treasure troves, the company located a vessel close to the Spanish coast earlier this year carrying half a million silver coins worth an estimated EUR 350 million. It says that the discovery is the biggest of its kind.

The government claims that the wreck is most likely a Spanish vessel, and is currently fighting Odyssey in the US courts over possession of the haul.

The Odyssey vessel Ocean Alert was seized in July by Spanish authorities and then released after a week. A second craft, Odyssey Explorer, belonging to the Florida company, was seized on 16 October.
The company has so far sent 17 tonnes of coins recovered from the wreck back to the US for examination, and insists that the ship was not in Spanish territorial waters. It also claims that the find was not the HMS Sussex, a shipwreck that Odyssey was given permission from the Spanish government to search for in the Strait of Gibraltar in March.

In Britain, the find generated press reports that Odyssey had salvaged the wreck of the long-sought British vessel Merchant Royal, which sank in bad weather off England in 1641. Odyssey has not confirmed or denied these reports.

And while a Florida judge decides on the matter, the Culture Ministry has put together a plan to protect the country's underwater heritage from treasure hunters that involves detailed mapping of wrecks anywhere in the world. Sites off the Spanish coast will be designated of cultural interest, and money will be made available to underwater archaeology centres. Spending will be upped on training archaeologists, there will be a campaign to increase awareness among the public of the country's underwater heritage, and the possibility of using satellite surveillance to protect them is also being looked into.

The first meeting between central and regional government representatives - along with the Civil Guard, the Navy and archaeologists - is due to take place on 12 December. It is hoped that there, specific measures will be agreed upon.

"We need sufficient technology and resources to be able to work properly in an underwater environment," says Javier Noriega, adding: "The treasure hunters always get there first."

In any event, the existence of a plan suggests that the Spanish authorities have changed their thinking about shipwrecks. For many years, archaeologists and academics have complained about this country's lack of interest in its sunken heritage. US courts have usually ruled in favour of treasure hunters, given Spain's record when it comes to reclaiming ships. "It is an abandoned vessel whose original owner no longer exists. The Spanish government has expressed no interest in filing a claim to recover it," ran the 1983 ruling over the Santa Margarita, a sunken galleon that well-known treasure hunter Mel Fischer discovered and kept.

"The new approach is a good thing, but we also need to change our outlook," admits a Spanish archaeologist, who prefers to remain anonymous. "It is essential that we stop being so academic, only publishing things for the benefit of our colleagues. We have to let people know about the results of our research. Unless people know what is going on, none of this makes much sense," he concludes.

For its part, Odyssey Marine Exploration says that it has always been interested in working with governments to offer its services. If Spain has that many wrecks scattered around the world, then the company should be able to reach an agreement with Spain. That said, relations between the two entities have been soured by the ongoing court case.

The company insists that it has acted transparently so far. However, it says that it can't reveal the name of the vessel, because it doesn't know what it is yet. Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey, defends the company's approach to archaeology. He denies being a treasure hunter, and says that scientific investigation and making a profit are compatible.

"It is all very well that Spain is talking about protecting its sunken treasures, but if it doesn't do anything about them, they will just remain at the bottom of the ocean, where they are likely to be destroyed," he says.

As more than one commentator has pointed out, Spain is currently making claims on precious metals taken from Latin America while it was a colonial power. The new-world civilisations that were stripped of their gold and silver before it was sent back to Europe would, of course, have no claim whatsoever.

[December 2007]

[Copyright EL PAÍS, SL./ ÁLVARO DE CÓZAR 2007]

Subject: Spanish news


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