ON December 5, 2015, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the long-lost San José treasure galleon had been found at last, some 307 years after it was sunk by English warships off his country’s Caribbean coast. The vessel was carrying a fortune when it went down – bullion, coins and gemstones en route from the mines of the New World to the coffers of Spain’s King Phillip V and his French ally Louis XIV.
By virtue of that cargo, the San José had become further freighted with myth in the centuries it spent on the seabed, and one Bogota-based reporter summarised its abiding reputation as “the holy grail of shipwrecks”. The current value of its trove may be as much as $17 billion. As soon as the find was announced, those spoils were contested by US commercial salvage operators Sea Search Armada (SSA), who claim to have already discovered the ship’s location, and duly informed Colombian authorities, back in 1982.
SSA’s outstanding demand for a hefty, customary finder’s fee is complicated by recent debates and developments in the blurry territory of sunken treasure-hunting. For one thing, the latest positioning systems allow for a much more precise fix on sub-aquatic locations than was possible even a few years ago. The coordinates of the San José remain a Colombian state secret to protect the site from looting, but culture minister Mariana Garces-Cordoba has suggested that SSA’s claim will be nullified if the wreck is not at the exact longitude and latitude where they said it was.
Then there’s the question of heritage and history. Given that the ship’s loot were largely plundered from present-day Peru and Bolivia, there are some who believe it should now be returned. Spain has its own claim, as original “owner” of the San José and home of its drowned crew. But maritime archaeologist Peter Campbell thinks that Spain will let Colombia keep whatever artefacts are recovered, as long as they’re not sold off for profit but preserved in a museum.
“Museums generate more money anyway, so that would be wise,” says Campbell. If this makes him sound a little like an underwater Indiana Jones, the comparison seems valid enough. Campbell spent half of his childhood in Denmark, near Roskilde, and half in the US, on the shore of Lake Michigan. He rowed on reconstructed Viking longboats and immersed himself in local maritime history. Later, he studied terrestrial archaeology, and found it “really tedious excavating layer by layer of dirt”.
So he got scuba certified, and is now a leading member of the Cave Archaeology Investigation & Research Network (CAIRN), an educator in “shipwrecks and submerged worlds” at the University of Southampton, and a qualified, experienced diver who explores those worlds first-hand. More of his peers are also taking to the water these days.
It’s a trickier working environment, says Campbell, but the artifacts themselves “can be much better preserved than on land, where people tend to stay in the same locations, building over previous civilisations and destroying previous layers”.
“When something is deposited at sea, it’s often untouched until someone finds it. No worries about a bulldozer going through. It’s also easier to dive down to the sea floor to survey than it is to dig shovel pits all over field or in a city. Some of our biggest strides in understanding the past have come from underwater research.”
Indeed, it seems like we have entered a new golden age of shipwreck discovery. The remains of Kublai Khan’s attack fleet were recently discovered near Japan, and ever-more artefacts are emerging from the HMS Erebus off Nunavut, Canada – though the whereabouts of the HMS Terror, lead ship in the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, remain a mystery.
Moving south toward warmer American waters, other recent finds include an early steamship at the bottom of Lake Ontario, a late 18th century vessel off North Carolina, and $4 million in gold coins from a Spanish fleet wrecked by a hurricane off Florida in 1715. (Florida’s so-called “treasure coast” was nicknamed for all the eight-sided reals, or “pieces of eight”, that have since washed up on its shores. In the mid-1980s, local salvage operator Mel Fisher found a fortune in gold and silver bars from another Spanish galleon sunk by an earlier storm. His subsequent battle to keep it went all the way to the US Supreme Court, and resulted in the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which asserted the state’s ownership of any such vessel and cargo found within its territory.)
According to Peter Campbell, the abundance and richness of recent finds have a lot to do with technology. More wrecks are being discovered and explored with acoustic cameras, fibre-optic ropes and underwater robots. Highly precise seafloor maps and site plans can be made using “relatively cheap” software like 3D photogrammetry. Artefacts can be examined by 3D scanning, DNA testing, elemental and molecular analysis.
“A sort of digital revolution is happening,” he says, “akin to the introduction of radio-carbon dating in the 1950s, which allowed archaeology to give exact dates to very old things. We’re making more important discoveries at a faster rate, and the stories we can tease out of shipwrecks using science are incredible.” Campbell’s professional attention has been lately focused on the Eastern Aegean Sea, and the 22 separate shipwrecks located in close proximity last year around the Greek islands of the Fourni archipelago.
He is co-director of the project that is now surveying those wrecks – all former merchant vessels from various ports and time points of the ancient world. The oldest date back to the Classic, Hellenic and even the Archaic periods, as long ago as 700 BCE. The majority are Late Roman, circa 300 to 600 CE. In this case, no sophisticated tech was needed in the first phase of the excavation. Local fishermen and sponge divers had known about those sunken ships for generations, and led the archaeologists straight to them.
“It’s always exciting to find anything on the seabed,” says Campbell. “But an ancient wreck is really special. When we found the first one at Fourni, I was screaming underwater.” After hundreds or thousands of years below the surface, the wood has all been “eaten by critters”, as he puts it, leaving only inorganic artefacts like anchors and pottery, often laid out in a broken trail of smaller pieces leading to a larger main pile.
Campbell and his peers want to leave those sites undisturbed, taking only “what we need to answer scientific questions”. (In this respect, he is not so much like Indiana Jones.) Where there is treasure, there tends to be looters – sometimes professional thieves, more often amateurs who don’t know or care that the potential profit from a stolen, broken, ancient amphorae clay storage jar will be pretty negligible when set against its true historic value. It may even crumble to dust in their hands. “Unfortunately,” says Campbell, “anything that has been exposed to saltwater for a long time begins to degrade rapidly in the air, so these objects rarely survive very long.
“As a result, we’ve lost entire chapters of history due to underwater sites being stripped bare by people looking for a souvenir, or to make a buck.” Economic forces at the surface have created a buyer’s market for trafficked antiquities. Desperate opportunists in poor countries are compelled to sell at rock-bottom prices to wealthy foreign clients, who then launder that loot through the legal art trade for resale at galleries and auction houses.
International police forces catch some of these and miss many others. Campbell believes that those now living in the vicinity of major discoveries should be as informed and involved as possible. He reasons, for example, that if the Greek islanders around the Fourni shipwrecks are enfolded in their ancient narratives and encouraged to feel a broader sense of cultural ownership, they’ll be more inclined to act as guardians.
“An engaged local population is the best form of protection.” Consider also that these are grave sites. “Shipwrecks are a bit bittersweet,” says Campbell. Having worked as a sailor, and heard ships go down over the radio, he understands that “there was likely loss of life”, a fact invariably forgotten by those in the throes of treasure fever.
In the case of the San José galleon, arguments and speculations over on its precious cargo have almost entirely drowned out any mention of the 600 Spanish naval personnel who went down with it. As for the Fourni wrecks, “spatial patterning” suggests that most of those vessels were driven into nearby cliffs by a vicious southern wind that kept returning to kill passing merchants and sailors in much the same place – they all died close together, but centuries apart. “That’s why I try to respect a shipwreck,” says Campbell.
“By leaving it as I found it, and by telling its story as best I can.”