Monday, May 2, 2011

History: Treasure Hunting

For those of us who study the history of piracy, finding a glorious cash of sunken treasure is a dearly held dream. We want to hold what our ancestors might have held, see it up close and not through the thick glass of a museum case and maybe even wear a piece of it. In my case, I imagine a silver cross studded with ruby cabochons and suspended from a braided, silver chain. The perfect accessory for a lady privateer.

Unfortunately for we who dream, treasure hunting is purely business and treasure hunters are nothing like us. While they may give lip service to history, they’re in it for the cold, hard cash. Fiddling with a bunch of old coins is just the first step to making that money.

As an example, take this article from Mail Online about a recently found ship wrecked off the coast of the Dominican Republic some time in the 1500s. The find is, from all indications, fabulous and potentially unprecedented as the ship may be the oldest wreck yet found in the Caribbean. Digging in the silt and sand off “the northern coast” of the island (exact location will, of course, not be revealed) has not even begun yet but the treasure hunting company of Deep Blue Marine has already pulled up thousands of dollars worth of artifacts. In the article, Ray Champion, the vice president of Deep Blue, is quoted as saying:

We have just scratched the surface… All of the stuff we’ve found is just from mucking about, really.

The picture at the header, which is from the article and provided by Deep Blue Marine, gives you just a sample of the incredible things they’ve pulled up. These include 700 silver coins, jade figurines, jewelry of both New and Old World origins and the lovely pyrite mirror featured in the picture.

The article does not speak to the ship which was carrying this treasure trove in much detail. Champion speculates that it was Spanish, on its way to Spain from her New World colonies, that she was carrying some wealthy passengers and that she was small:

… around 50 to 60 feet with 25 to 45 people aboard…

This brings up some interesting questions. A smaller ship discounts the possibility that the ship was one of Spain’s vast “treasure fleet” almost invariably named after the Virgin. Such a ship would have been large and manned with hundreds of sailors. The “wealthy passengers”, however, do not discount the possibility that she was a freebooter but her destination does; no pirate in that area and period would have been headed for Spain. Given that all details about the ship – where she went down and who she actually was – are completely avoided for reasons of security, these “facts” come off as broad speculation on the part of Mr. Champion. They may be educated guesses, in fact, but it’s hard to tell without more information.

Then too there is the conflict of purpose given in the article. Champion tells the author that “We’re trying to find out what happened to this ship” just a few paragraphs after noting that the coins found so far “… could be worth millions. But they aren’t worth anything unless someone buys them.” Point taken.

Of course what Champion and his crew are doing is dangerous work, and not just because of the risks of diving in any water. Their hours are long; according to the article it takes them twelve hours “… to sail around the island to the dive site” just for starters. They also need to be constantly vigilant against potential thieves. Already a good amount of diving equipment has been stolen from one of their ships and it goes without saying that pre-Columbian jade and Renaissance jewelry would fetch quite a price on the black market. Much like Sam Bellamy in the 18th century “wracking trade”, modern pirates are not above absconding with the treasure someone else has worked hard to free from the ocean floor.

Champion blithely dismisses all that with a simple “It’s better than being stuck at a desk,” at the end of the article. That rings true to me, too. I do hope, though, that the fabulous find is looked after well and that her secrets are revealed to those of us who love the kind of history she represents. In the end, everything about her is worth more than any currency on Earth.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! There is no doubt in my mind after reading that article that these "Treasure Hunters" as you have so accurately described them are purely out for monetary gain (not that there is anything wrong with making money and turning a profit) and not about preserving history.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! You've pretty much summarized my point. Obviously what these guys do is hard and dangerous work and those of us who love the history can benefit from it. However, as many times as companies like this sell to museums and other historical foundations, they also sell to private collectors meaning the general public is, as they say, s*o*l. The fact that 50% of the profits (not the artifacts) go to the Dominican Republic doesn't help that issue, either.

Let's just be honest is my argument. It's OK that it's a business, but that doesn't make it less disappointing when a valuable historical piece is lost to study in the pursuit of a buck.