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In a confidential location at sea near Melbourne, Florida, explorers and treasure recovery experts have found an ancient Peruvian funeral mask which they think is evidence of a sunken treasure worth a cool $4 billion.
The treasure allegedly went down with a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba to Spain in 1715 was wrecked in a hurricane and researchers working with Seafarer Exploration Corporation are calling their potential find, “the richest archaeological discovery of our time.”
Inca Artifact from Funerary Treasures
A News 6 video featured in a report on Clickorlando.com shows reporter James Sparvero interviewing Army Ranger and MIT adjunct professor Dr. Mike Torres - who has searched for this particular shipwreck for the past 11 years. Following what he calls the “debris trail”, professor Torres claims the ancient mask was found washed up on a beach and is “Inca”, originating in Peru.
- Mummy hair reveals ancient Peruvians enjoyed seafood and beer
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- God’s Gate and the Sun Temple: A Mysterious Incan Portal Leading to Other Worlds
Torres also thinks the Spanish stole the mask from a “very special” tomb because while it’s mainly made from copper, gold, and silver, it also includes iridium, which the report claims came from a meteorite. Torres told Florida Today , “They had to, at one point, figure out blast furnaces,” he said, “It took serious thought to smelt this.” Torres believes the mask could be one of the earliest known examples of human metal working .
A Messy Mix
You are immediately forgiven if you have watched the News 6 video and are in a state of utter confusion, as was I. Sparvero’s introductory scene in the video confidently states the mask is “possibly 10 or 12,000 years old.” But in reality, the Inca formed in the Cusco area of modern Peru in the mid-12th century AD. Going with professor Torres’ suggestion that it’s an ‘Inca funerary mask’ it was forged no longer than 800 years ago, but other archaeologists claim “a native civilization smelted the mask possibly thousands of years BC” according to an article in Florida Today .
This story, the way it was originally presented, then cut and pasted and retold across the media, really is a messy fictional storm almost void of facts altogether. But the confusion only starts there.
While Torres says the mask is Inca, right after that he says “it might be the first evidence of smelting” in South America. But that was thousands of years before the Inca formed. Searching for hard facts, clarity can be found in an excellent research paper, Metallurgy in Southern South America , written by three of the world’s leading scholars on ancient metallurgy; Colin A. Cooke, Mark B Abbott, and Alexander P. Wolfe. The scientists state , “The earliest evidence to date for smelting activity in southern South America comes in the form of copper slag from the Wankarani site in the highlands of Bolivia dating between 900 and 700 BCE (Ponce 1970).”
Representation of people from the Wankarani culture who lived in the highlands of what is now Bolivia. ( Pablo Villagomez )
Accepting the work of these three experts, the very oldest the mask can be is 2,500 years old. But the symbology does not match the iconography of any South American cultures at this time and is classically Inca . All things considered, the mask was probably made between six and eight hundred years ago.
Another really important aspect that must be considered is an ‘omission’ or ‘miss-truth’ in the report, in the claim that the inclusion of iridium in the mask must have come from a meteorite - this is simply not true. David A. Scott from the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, wrote a seminal paper in 1980 called Ancient Platinum Technology in South America Its use by the Indians in Pre-Hispanic Times . One of his key findings , which is known by all metallurgists, is that the occurrence of iridium as ‘small inclusions’ in ancient gold work “were not deliberate alloying additions, but are frequently found in alluvial deposits associated with gold.”
- 3,000-Year-Old Copper Mask Found in Argentina Challenges Ideas of South American Metalwork Development
- Grave Goods and Human Sacrifices: Social Differentiation in Sican Culture Reflected in Unique Burials
- Peculiar Wooden Sculptures Discovered at Chan Chan in Peru and May Mark the Graves of Ancient VIPs
Scott concluded that gold found in ‘placer deposits’ gives rise to “the unintentional presence of platinoid inclusions, particularly of the iridium-osmium-ruthenium group.” Thus, the inclusion of iridium in the Inca mask found in Florida is accidental, and the Inca metal workers knew nothing about its presence. Therefore, the whole idea that the mask must have come from a “special Inca tomb” is based on an assumption.
Example of a gold Inca mask. (Guacamoliest/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
All this aside, and returning to the ‘Inca’ Artifact…
The way it works in Florida is that if Torres and Seafarer Exploration Corp. actually find the shipwreck and recover its treasure they retain 80% of the value, while the state of Florida keep the remaining 20%. Torres has already stated that it would be “kept in a collection and preserved for public viewing” and when asked if he is about to become a billionaire he stroked his beard and said “maybe.”
7 of the Biggest Treasure Troves Ever Found
Buried treasure is one of those things that sounds like it only exists in stories. But throughout history, valuable objects—coins, jewelry, crowns—have often been either deliberately buried or just lost to the ages. Here are seven of the most valuable and extensive treasure troves ever brought to light.
1. THE CUERDALE HOARD
Value: Approximately $3.2 million
While repairing the embankment of the River Ribble in Cuerdale, near Preston in England, a group of workmen dug up a lead box. Inside was one of the biggest hoards of Viking treasure ever found—more than 8600 items were documented, including silver coins, various bits of jewelry, and silver ingots.
Although the majority of the items originated in English Viking kingdoms, some of the treasure was also traced back to other regions, including Scandinavia, Italy, and Byzantium.
The treasure was presented to Queen Victoria, and some of it is now on display in the British Museum (as seen above). The workmen who found it, meanwhile, managed to grab a coin each.
2. THE HOXNE HOARD
Value: Approximately $3.8 million
Having lost his hammer in a field, farmer Peter Whatling called a friend with a metal detector to help him find it. Instead, he found treasure. Inside the oak chest was a collection of silver spoons, gold jewelry, and coins, all dating back to the 4th or 5th century CE. Whatling called in help, and archaeologists managed to find all sorts of other treasures buried in the same field, including Roman ladles and serving bowls.
The hoard was bought by the British Museum, though it was so valuable the museum had to call in funds from donors like the National Art Collections fund to afford it. As for the errant hammer? That’s now in the British Museum, too.
3. THE STAFFORDSHIRE HOARD
Value: Approximately $4.1 million
Terry Herbert was using his metal detector on a recently plowed field near Hammerwich in Staffordshire, when he stumbled across the largest trove of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found. All told, the hoard included over 3500 items, most of which were military-related.
As well as weaponry, though, the hoard included several religious artifacts, and lots of decorative items. It’s tough to be exact, but the hoard is thought to date back to the 8th century, and has influenced the way historians think about that period in English history. Enough to make you rush out to buy a metal detector, isn’t it?
4. THE ŚRODA TREASURE
Value: Approximately $120 million
Back in 1985, an old building in the Polish town of Środa Śląska was being demolished ahead of renovation works when a vase was found beneath the foundation. Inside were more than 3000 silver coins, dating back to the 14th century.
A couple of years later, when another building nearby was knocked down, even more artifacts were uncovered, including lots more gold and silver coins and an array of jewelry, including a gold crown and a ring bearing the head of a dragon.
Although there’s clearly a lot of treasure there, experts have struggled to put an exact value on it, because nothing else quite like it really exists.
5. THE CAESAREA SUNKEN TREASURE
Scuba divers exploring the seabed near the harbor of Caesarea National Park, Israel, thought they’d stumbled across a child’s toy when they found the first gold coin. But when they saw how many coins there were, and looked more closely at the engravings on them, they realized they’d found something pretty significant.
They reported their find to the Israel Antiquities Authority, and returned with metal detectors to search the area more thoroughly. In the end, nearly 2000 coins were recovered—the coins were of several different denominations, and had been minted at different times, sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries. (You can see a closer view of the coins in the top image.)
And so far, no one’s attached an exact value on the find, except to say that it’s so valuable, it’s essentially priceless.
6. THE PANAGYURISHTE TREASURE
Brothers Pavel, Petko, and Michail Deikov were digging for clay at a tile factory near Panagyurishte, Bulgaria, when one of them stumbled across what he thought was a strange whistle. Further digging uncovered more objects, and when the brothers took their finds to the mayor’s office, they found that they were made of gold—and there were a lot more where they came from.
Actually, rather than being a whistle, the first thing they’d found turned out to be a ceremonial drinking horn, dating from the 4th century BCE. There were also golden decanters, a kind of dish, and a vase, all of which were thought to have been used in religious rites. All in all, they found more than 13 pounds of solid gold carved into elaborate shapes and intricately decorated.
7. THE BACTRIAN GOLD
The treasure found at Tillya Tepe, which has become known as the Bactrian gold, was recovered from six burial mounds. More than 20,000 gold ornaments were retrieved.
The treasure was dated between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, and came from the burial sites of a nomadic prince and five women (possibly his wives). What’s particularly interesting about this hoard is that the treasures are so diverse, with objects from China, India, and Greece all mixed together. The jewelry is elaborate, set with precious stones of all colors.
Since the treasure was uncovered in the late '70s, it’s changed hands a number of times, especially when Afghanistan was invaded and the national museum, where the collection was kept, was looted in the Afghan-Russian war a few years later. It has since been recovered and is displayed at museums all around the world.
The Law of Finders-Keepers and What Happens When You Find Buried Treasure
A California couple was out walking the dog around their property last year when they stumbled across eight buried cans&mdashwith an estimated $10 million worth of gold coins inside. A year later, the rare coin dealer approached by the anonymous couple went public with the find on Tuesday. The long delay from find to fame was partly because of questions about how strong the couple’s claim to ownership was for the roughly 1,400 gold coins, dated from 1847 to 1894.
And it turns out that, in many cases, finders really are keepers.
Governments have been issuing rules about lost and found property&mdashwho owns it and how it shall be divided&mdashfor millennia. If a Roman walking around the Coliseum grounds in the days of Emperor Hadrian&rsquos rule stumbled upon a half-buried pot full of bronze bars, half went to the lucky Roman, half to Hadrian. Today, if an Londoner unearths rare golden coins in his backyard, those belong to the royal family&mdashwho would likely pay the digger a handsome fee.
In modern day America, the presumption is &ldquofinders-keepers&rdquo&mdashthough there is a web of statutes and case law that can complicate such a simple maxim.
Generally, &ldquothe finder of lost property can keep it against all the world&hellip qualified by the question of where it was found,&rdquo says property law expert John Orth, a professor at the University of North Carolina. In the case of &ldquoJohn and Mary&rdquo (as they’re being called) and their California coins, the strongest factor in their favor is that they found the coins on their own property. Even if someone could prove that their great-great-grandfather buried those cans, there&rsquos likely little the descendant could do if their grandfather sold that land to John and Mary&rsquos family. &ldquoWhen you buy something, normally you get anything that&rsquos been hidden in it,&rdquo says Orth, offering the example of a man who bought a used car for $600 and gets to keep $10,000 he finds in the trunk.
If John and Mary had found the coins while taking a walk on someone else&rsquos property, the booty would likely go to that landowner. But what if someone stumbles across something valuable on public property? Say a San Franciscan strolling across the Golden Gate Bridge finds a bag containing $1 million in cash. In California, there is a law mandating that any found property valued over $100 be turned over to police. Authorities must then wait 90 days, advertise the lost property for a week, and finally release it to the person who found it if no one could prove ownership. Orth says it’s rare for cities or states to make any claim to found property, like the goods that metal-detector-wielding treasure hunters find on public beaches, unless it has some historical or archeological significance.
A legal distinction that often comes to bear is whether property is abandoned, lost or mislaid. Abandoned property is something forsaken by a previous owner, who has no intention of returning for it. Lost property, like an engagement ring accidentally dropped in the street, is something that is inadvertently, unknowingly left behind. And mislaid property is intentionally put somewhere&mdashlike money on a bank counter that a customer intends to deposit&mdashbut then forgotten. Mislaid property, Orth says, is supposed to be safeguarded by whoever owns the property where it was mislaid until someone with a better claim, like the bank customer, comes back. Abandoned property and lost property are more likely to be dealt with by the easy &ldquofinder-keepers&rdquo edict.
An Arizona case, in which a man died after having hidden $500,000 in ammunition cans in his walls, helps illustrate the distinction. The man&rsquos daughters, knowing he had a penchant for stashing things away, searched the house after he died before selling it to new owners. Years later, the new owners hired a contractor to renovate the house and he discovered the cans, hidden behind a wall-mounted toaster oven. The new owners said the money should come with the house, that it had essentially been abandoned. But as soon as the heirs found out about the stash they staked their own claim. An appellate court determined in 2012 that the funds were mislaid&mdashhaving been intentionally put there, not unintentionally lost or thrown away&mdashand awarded the money to the daughters.
A different court could have come to a different conclusion, of course. And cases can get much more complicated, especially when more than two parties are staking a claim. If a diver off the Florida coast happens upon a sunken ship with a trunk full of galleons, for instance, that might yield a legal battle among the finder and the state, descendants of the ship&rsquos owners and any insurance company that paid a claim when the ship went down. &ldquoThese cases are a mess,&rdquo Orth says.
A key piece of common law when it comes to sunken ships might be the same that appears to matter in John and Mary&rsquos case&mdashwhat is known as &ldquotreasure trove.&rdquo This is a fourth category&mdashbeyond lost, abandoned or mislaid&mdashthat refers to any property that is verifiably antiquated and has been concealed for so long that the owner is probably dead or unknown and certainly unlikely to pop out of a grave and demand that his goods be returned. &ldquoThe obvious fact that these coins had to have gone into the ground in the 1800s certainly helps their case,&rdquo says David McCarthy, a coin expert at the dealer that is working with John and Mary.
When someone stumbles upon treasure, the most important question is likely whether someone else has a better claim. In the case of John and Mary and their $10 million pot of gold, anyone else making a claim that trumps their property rights has &ldquoa high hurdle&rdquo to meet, says Armen Vartian, an attorney specializing in arts and collectible law in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
&ldquoWhen people are arguing over who has a superior claim, the guy who hasn&rsquot pursued his claim is at a disadvantage,&rdquo he says, giving the example of someone who said his family had been meaning to come retrieve those eight cans for the last century but just didn&rsquot get around to it. &ldquoYou might have had a right at some point, but you lose it.&rdquo
Monday, July 30, 2018
7/30/18 Report - One Find. Database of Ancient Finds. How To Identify Valuable Modern Coins.
Written by the TreasureGuide for the exclusive use of treasurebeachesreport.blogspot.com.
|1899 Barber Dime|
Found on the Treasure Coast
Here is an interesting British metal detecting club web site including a database of interesting ancient finds. There are many individual finds along with some hoards.
I think someone sent me this link back a while ago. Sorry I forget who now.
I found a very good pdf document about how to identify valuable coins. You can find them in pocket change or in your goodie box.
Here is the introduction just to give you an idea what it is about.
Almost everyone has a box, can, jar, or piggy bank full of spare change. Who knows what treasures might be found in this change? And how do you tell the difference between ordinary change and a collectible coin? Is it possible to find something worth more than face value? Yes, it is! Even better, you might be able to make some money from your pocket change.
Numismatics is the study and collection of various forms of money throughout history. It is an intriguing and rewarding hobby. Numismatists can do well given the opportunity by examining many different coins to notice differences — including comparisons among coins with the same denomination. There are subtle variations — even among coins with the same year and mintmark — and recognizing these distinctions can pay off handsomely.
A numismatist becomes skilled through years of study, but eventually the effort becomes worthwhile and it’s possible to find real treasures in your change. New collectors may become discouraged if they don’t make exciting finds right away, but patience has proven to be a valuable trait toward becoming a successful collector. Many treasure hunters say it’s not about having the treasures, it’s about finding them – the thrill of the hunt.
The guidelines provided here are intended to assist the beginning collector.
Here is the link if you want to read the rest of the 26 page document.
The mind is amazing thing. There are rare occasions when you can recall the smallest details from the most distant times. As crazy as they might seem, dreams seem to play an important roll in taking you places in thought and feeling that you don't normally go in normal waking consciousness. I often awake and see things differently or feel differently about things after reflecting on my dreams. Sometimes I'm motivated by dreams, like when I wake up from a dream of finding a lot of treasure of one type or another.
Last night I dreamed I was at grandmas house, where I spent my first five years before my dad and mom built their own house. It has been a long time since I was there and grandpa and grandma are long gone. Grandpa and grandma were there, of course. I hadn't seen them in quite a while. A couple of their friends that usually visited on holidays were also there and sitting on lawn chairs in the back yard, as they often did.
It wasn't one of those real crazy dreams - just a nice visit with the past and some of the people I miss the most. It was a little strange - but not very, as dreams are judged. More than anything, it brought back memories. It is surprising how much detail is stored away deep down in your brain somewhere. You normally just can't recall a lot of what is there.
As I entered their house, I went to turn on the light over their driveway. There were two light switches beside the cellar door. At first I hit the wrong switch and the cellar light came on. That is the exact position where those two switches actually were. I remember that now even though if you asked me before the dream, I would never have been able to remember that.
So what does that have to do with treasure hunting? No matter what the task is, you have more knowledge than you realize. Some of it is unconscious. You can use that. Some people call that intuition. It is based upon unconscious or subconscious knowledge. There is a difference between the two, but that isn't important now. My point is that your dreams can provide deeply moving experiences and provide greater access to knowledge and provide insight and intuition. And secondly, you probably know more than you think you do if you can only access it.
Nothing new with the beach conditions. I'll keep watching for storms or changes.
Spanish ships had brought goods from the New World since Christopher Columbus's first expedition of 1492. The organized system of convoys dates from 1564, but Spain sought to protect shipping prior to that by organizing protection around the largest Caribbean island, Cuba and the maritime region of southern Spain and the Canary Islands because of attacks by pirates and foreign navies.  The Spanish government created a system of convoys in the 1560s in response to the sacking of Havana by French privateers. The main procedures were established after the recommendations of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, an experienced admiral and personal adviser of King Philip II.  The treasure fleets sailed along two sea lanes. The main one was the Caribbean Spanish West Indies fleet or Flota de Indias, which departed in two convoys from Seville, where the Casa de Contratación was based, bound for ports such as Veracruz, Portobelo and Cartagena before making a rendezvous at Havana in order to return together to Spain.  A secondary route was that of the Manila Galleons or Galeón de Manila which linked the Philippines to Acapulco in Mexico across the Pacific Ocean. From Acapulco, the Asian goods were transhipped by mule train to Veracruz to be loaded onto the Caribbean treasure fleet for shipment to Spain.   To better defend this trade, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Álvaro de Bazán designed the definitive model of the galleon in the 1550s. 
Casa de Contratación Edit
Spain controlled the trade through the Casa de Contratación based in Seville, a river port in southern Spain. By law, the colonies could trade only with the one designated port in the mother country, Seville.  Maritime archaeology has shown that the quantity of goods transported was sometimes higher than that recorded at the Archivo General de Indias. Spanish merchants and Spaniards acting as fronts (cargadores) for foreign merchants sent their goods on these fleets to the New World. Some resorted to contraband to transport their cargoes untaxed.  The Crown of Spain taxed the wares and precious metals of private merchants at a rate of 20%, a tax known as the quinto real or royal fifth. 
Spain became the richest country in Europe by the end of the 16th century.  Much of the wealth from this trade was used by the Spanish Habsburgs to finance armies to protect its European territories in the 16th and 17th centuries against the Ottoman Empire and most of the major European powers. The flow of precious metals in and out of Spain stimulated the European economy as a whole. 
The flow of precious metals made many traders wealthy, both in Spain and abroad. As a result of the discovery of precious metals in Spanish America, Spain's money supply increased tenfold.  The increase in gold and silver on the Iberian market caused high inflation in the 17th century, affecting the Spanish economy.  As a consequence, the Crown was forced to delay the payment of some major debts, which had negative consequences for its creditors, mostly foreign bankers. By 1690 some of these creditors could no longer offer financial support to the Crown.  The Spanish monopoly over its West and East Indies colonies lasted for over two centuries.
Decline, revival and abolition Edit
The economic importance of exports later declined with the drop of production of the American precious metal mines, such as Potosí.  However, the growth in trade was strong in the early years. Numbering just 17 ships in 1550, the fleets expanded to more than 50 much larger vessels by the end of the century. By the second half of the 17th century, that number had dwindled to less than half of its peak.  As economic conditions gradually recovered from the last decades of the 17th century, fleet operations slowly expanded again, once again becoming prominent during the reign of the Bourbons in the 18th century. 
The Spanish trade of goods was sometimes threatened by its colonial rivals, who tried to seize islands as bases along the Spanish Main and in the Spanish West Indies. However, the Atlantic trade was largely unharmed. The English acquired small islands like St Kitts in 1624 expelled in 1629, they returned in 1639 and seized Jamaica in 1655. French pirates established themselves in Saint-Domingue in 1625, were expelled, only to return later, and the Dutch occupied Curaçao in 1634. Other losses to foreign powers came later. In 1713 as part of the Treaty of Utrecht after the War of the Spanish Succession, the Spanish crown was forced to make concessions which included trading privileges for England that violated the previous Spanish monopoly on legal trade to its colonial holdings.  In 1739 during the War of Jenkin's Ear,  the British Admirals Francis Hosier and later Edward Vernon blockaded Portobello in an attempt to prevent the return sailing of the treasure fleet, but in 1741 Vernon's campaign against Cartagena de Indias ended in defeat, with heavy losses of men and ships. Temporary British seizures of Havana and Manila (1762–4), during the Seven Years' War, were dealt with by using a larger number of smaller fleets visiting a greater variety of ports.
The end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 marked the beginning of the rule of the Bourbon dynasty over the Spanish Empire, which brought with it the Bourbon Reforms. These reforms, designed to halt Spain's decline and increase tax revenue, brought about a series of changes to the fleet system throughout the 18th century.  Philip V began the reforms by sending investigators to report on conditions in Spanish America, who brought back evidence of fraud.  He and following Bourbon kings, notably including Charles III, would make a concerted effort to centralize the administration of Spanish America and more efficiently tax profits from overseas trade.  One of these reforms was the granting of trading monopolies for certain regions to trading companies ran by peninsulares, such as the Guipuzcoan Company.  Another involved the increased use of registered ships, or navíos de registro, traveling solo outside of the fleet system to transport goods.  These reforms gradually decreased reliance on the escorted convoys of the fleet system.  In the 1780s, Spain opened its colonies to freer trade.  In 1790, the Casa de Contratación was abolished, bringing to an end the great general purpose fleets. Thereafter small groups of naval frigates were assigned specifically to transferring goods or bullion as required. 
Every year, two fleets left Spain loaded with European goods in demand in Spanish America, which were guarded by military vessels. Valuable cargo from the Americas, most significantly silver from Mexico and Peru, were sent back to Spain. Fleets of fifty or more ships sailed from Spain, one bound for the Mexican port of Veracruz and the other for Panama and Cartagena.  From the Spanish ports of Seville or Cádiz, the two fleets bound for the Americas sailed together down the coast of Africa, and stopped at the Spanish territory of the Canary Islands for provisions before the voyage across the Atlantic. Once the two fleets reached the Caribbean, the fleets separated. The New Spain fleet sailed to Veracruz in Mexico to load not only silver and the valuable red dye cochineal, but also porcelain and silk shipped from China on the Manila galleons. The Asian goods were brought overland from Acapulco to Veracruz by mule train.  The Tierra Firme fleet, or galeones, sailed to Cartagena to load South American products, especially silver from Potosí. Some ships went to Portobello on the Caribbean coast of Panama to load Peruvian silver that had been shipped from the Pacific coast port of Callao. The silver had then been transported across the isthmus of Panama by mule. Other ships went to the Caribbean island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela, to collect pearls which had been harvested from offshore oyster beds. After loading was complete, both fleets sailed for Havana, Cuba, to rendezvous for the journey back to Spain. 
The overland journey by mule train, as well as supplies provided by local farmers to prepare the fleets for long ocean voyages, invigorated the economy of colonial Spanish America. Preparation and the transport of goods required porters, innkeepers, and foodstuffs to help facilitate travel.  However, in Mexico in 1635, there was an increase of the sales tax levied to finance the fleet, the Armada de Barlovento. 
Between 1703 and 1705 Spanish corsair Amaro Pargo began participation in the West Indies Fleet. In this period he was the owner and captain of the frigate El Ave María y Las Ánimas, a ship with which he sailed from the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife to that of Havana. He reinvented the benefits of the Canarian-American trade in his estates, mainly destined to the cultivation of the vine of malvasía and vidueño, whose products (mainly the one of vidueño) were sent to America. 
Walton  gives the following figures in pesos. For the 300-year period the peso or piece of eight had about 25 grams of silver, about the same as the German thaler and Dutch rijksdaalder. A single galleon might carry 2 million pesos. The modern approximate value of the estimated 4 billion pesos produced during the period would come to $530 billion or €470 billion (based on silver bullion prices of May 2015). Of the 4 billion pesos produced, 2.5 billion was shipped to Europe, of which 500 million was shipped around Africa to Asia. Of the remaining 1.5 billion 650 million went directly to Asia from Acapulco and 850 million remained in the Western Hemisphere. Little of the wealth stayed in Spain. Of the 11 million arriving in 1590, 2 million went to France for imports, 6 million to Italy for imports and military expenses, of which 2.5 went up the Spanish road to the Low Countries and 1 million to the Ottoman Empire. 1.5 million was shipped from Portugal to Asia. Of the 2 million pesos reaching the Dutch Republic in that year, 75% went to the Baltic for naval stores and 25% went to Asia. The income of the Spanish crown from all sources was about 2.5 million pesos in 1550, 14 million in the 1590s, about 15 million in 1760 and 30 million in 1780. In 1665 the debts of the Spanish crown were 30 million pesos short-term and 300 million long-term. Most of the New World production was silver but Colombia produced mostly gold. A The following table gives the estimated legal production and necessarily excludes smuggling which was increasingly important after 1600. The crown legally took one fifth (quinto real) at the source and obtained more through other taxes.
Despite the general perception that many Spanish galleons were captured by foreign privateers and pirates, few fleets were actually lost to enemies in the course of the flota's two and a half centuries of operation. Only the Dutch admiral Piet Hein managed to capture an entire fleet, in the Battle in the Bay of Matanzas in 1628, after which its cargo was taken to the Dutch Republic.  The English admiral Robert Blake twice attacked the fleet, in the Battle of Cádiz in 1656 and in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1657, but he managed to capture only a single galleon and Spanish officers saved most of the silver.  The West Indies fleet was destroyed in the Battle of Vigo Bay in 1702 during the War of the Spanish Succession, when it was surprised in port unloading its goods, but the Spanish sailors had already unloaded most of its cargo.  None of these attacks took place in open seas. In the case of the Manila galleons, only four were ever captured by British warships in nearly three centuries: the Santa Anna by Thomas Cavendish in 1589, the Encarnación by Woodes Rogers in 1709, the Covadonga by George Anson in 1743, and the Santísima Trinidad in 1762. Two other British attempts were foiled by the Rosario in 1704 and the Begonia in 1710.  These losses and others due to hurricanes were significant economic blows to trade.
Wrecks of Spanish treasure ships, whether sunk in naval combat or, as was more usually the case, by storms (those of 1622, 1715, 1733 and 1750  being among the worst), are a prime target for modern treasure hunters. Many, such as the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, and the Santa Margarita have been salvaged.  In August 1750, at least three Spanish merchantmen ran aground in North Carolina during a hurricane. The El Salvador   sank near Cape Lookout, the Nuestra Señora De Soledad went ashore near present-day Core Banks and the Nuestra Señora De Guadalupe went ashore near present-day Ocracoke. 
The wreck of the cargo ship Encarnación, part of the Tierra Firme fleet, was discovered in 2011 with much of its cargo still aboard and part of its hull intact. The Encarnación sank in 1681 during a storm near the mouth of the Chagres River on the Caribbean side of Panama. The Encarnación sank in less than 40 feet of water.  The remains of the Urca de Lima from the 1715 fleet and the San Pedro from the 1733 fleet, after being found by treasure hunters, are now protected as Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserves. 
The Capitana (El Rubi) was the flagship of the 1733 fleet it ran aground during a hurricane near Upper Matecumbe Key, then sank. Three men died during the storm. Afterward, divers recovered most of the treasure aboard.
The Capitana was the first of the 1733 ships to be found again in 1938. Salvage workers recovered items from the sunken ship over more than 10 years. Additional gold was recovered in June 2015. The ship's location: is 24° 55.491' north, 80° 30.891' west.   
Sprucing up an otherwise docile English field, the prehistoric monument commonly known as Stonehenge is one of the world's most famous landmarks.
The ring of megalithic stones was built approximately 4,000 years ago and was an impressive feat for the primitive people who constructed it but that's about all archaeologists know for sure. None of the theories on the original purpose of Stonehenge, which range from an astronomical observatory to a religious temple of healing, has ever been, well, set in stone.
A Shipwreck Off Florida’s Coast Pits Archaeologists Against Treasure Hunters
Most visitors come to Cape Canaveral, on the northeast coast of Florida, for the tourist attractions. It’s home to the second-busiest cruise ship port in the world and is a gateway to the cosmos. Nearly 1.5 million visitors flock here every year to watch rockets, spacecraft, and satellites blast off into the solar system from Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, reminding us of the restless reach of our species. Nearly 64 kilometers of undeveloped beach and 648 square kilometers of protected refuge fan out from the cape’s sandy shores. And then there’s the draw of relics like Turtle Mound, a vast hill containing 27,000 cubic meters of oyster shells left by Indigenous tribes several thousand years ago.
Yet some of Cape Canaveral’s most storied attractions lie unseen, wedged under the sea’s surface in mud and sand, for this part of the world has a reputation as a deadly ship trap. Over the centuries, dozens of stately Old World galleons smashed, splintered, and sank on this irregular stretch of windy Florida coast. They were vessels built for war and commerce, traversing the globe carrying everything from coins to ornate cannons, boxes of silver and gold ingots, chests of emeralds and porcelain, and pearls from the Caribbean—the stuff of legends.
Cape Canaveral contains one of the greatest concentrations of colonial shipwrecks in the world, though the majority of them have never been found. In recent years, advances in radar, sonar, scuba diving, detection equipment, computers, and GPS have transformed the hunt. The naked eye might see a pile of rocks, centuries of concretions, crusts of coral, decayed and worm-eaten wood, oxidized metal—but technology can reveal the precious artifacts that lie hidden full fathom five on the ocean floor.
As technology renders the seabed more accessible, the hunt for treasure-laden ships has drawn a fresh tide of salvors and their investors—as well as marine archaeologists wanting to exhume the lost relics. But of late, when salvors have found vessels, their rights have been challenged in court. The big question: who should have dominion over these Golcondas of the seas? High-stakes fights over shipwrecks pit archaeologists against treasure hunters in a vicious cycle of accusations. Archaeologists regard themselves as protectors of history and the human story, and they see salvors as careless destroyers. Salvors feel they do the hard grunt work of searching for ships for months and years, only to have them stolen out from under them when discovered.
This kind of clash inevitably takes place on a grand scale. Aside from the salvors, their investors, and the maritime archaeologists who serve as expert witnesses, the battles sweep in local and international governments and organizations like UNESCO that work to protect underwater heritage. The court cases that ensue stretch on for years. Are finders keepers, or do the ships belong to the countries that made them and sent them sailing centuries ago? Where once salvors and archaeologists worked side by side, now they belong to opposing, and equally contemptuous, tribes.
Nearly three million vessels lie wrecked on the Earth’s ocean floor—from old canoes to the Titanic—and likely less than one percent have been explored. Some—like an ancient Roman ship found off Antikythera, Greece, dated between 70 and 60 BCE and carrying astonishingly sophisticated gears and dials for navigating by the sun—are critical to a new understanding of our past. They are Rosetta stones of the sea. No wonder there is an eternal stirring among everybody from salvors to scholars to find them.
In May 2016, a salvor named Bobby Pritchett, president of Global Marine Exploration (GME) in Tampa, Florida, announced that he had discovered scattered remains of a ship buried a kilometer off Cape Canaveral. Over the prior three years, he and his crew had obtained 14 state permits to survey and dive a nearly 260-square-kilometer area off the cape they did so around 250 days each year, backed by investor funds of, he claims, U.S. $4-million.
It was hard work. Crew members were up at dawn, dragging dual booms with magnetometry sensors from their expedition vessels back and forth, back and forth, day in and day out, month after month, year after year, to detect metal of any kind. Using computer technology, Pritchett and his crew created intricate, color-coded maps marked with the GPS coordinates of thousands of finds—including spent rockets, airplane shrapnel, and shrimp boats—all invisible under a meter of sand. The targets lay like an explosion of iridescent black, green, blue, and yellow stars on an image of the ocean. “We would find a target, then go back and dive it, and move the sand to see what it was,” he says. “We did that thousands of times until we finally discovered targets of historic importance.”
One day in 2015, the magnetometer picked up metal that turned out to be an iron cannon when the divers blew the sand away, they also discovered a more precious bronze cannon with markings indicating French royalty and, not far off, a famous marble column carved with the coat of arms of France, known from historical engravings and watercolors. The discovery was cause for celebration. The artifacts indicated the divers had likely found the wreck of La Trinité, a 16th-century French vessel that had been at the center of a bloody battle between France and Spain that changed the fate of the United States of America.
And then the legal maelstrom began, with GME and Pritchett pitted against Florida and France.
“La Trinité is a ship tied to the history of three nations—France, Spain, and the United States,” explains noted maritime archaeologist James Delgado, the senior vice president of SEARCH, a U.S.-based cultural resources organization with offices in Jacksonville, Florida, and a specialty in archaeology. Delgado has participated in over 100 shipwreck investigations around the world and is the author of over 200 academic articles and dozens of books. “It tells a story of fortunes, empires, and colonial ambition that carries an international, shared cultural heritage.”
“In the world of ships and treasures, there’s really no better story than La Trinité,” agrees archaeologist Chuck Meide, director of archaeological maritime research at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum in Saint Augustine, Florida. Meide—a tall, broad-shouldered 48-year-old with a blond ponytail and a sunny smile—led a six-week expedition sponsored by the state and federal governments in 2014 to try to find La Trinité. The ship has fascinated him since he first heard about it in the fourth grade. “It is critical to the origin story of Florida, and thus America. It’s also the first example of a group that faced religious persecution in Europe coming to America to seek freedom. La Trinité has been on everybody’s minds for years.”
“When I viewed the videos,” recalls Floridian John de Bry, a historian specializing in maritime archaeology who was given an early peek at the footage by Pritchett, “I thought, my God, this is the most important shipwreck ever found in North America.”
La Trinité set sail for what is now Florida in 1565—a full half-century before pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock—leading a fleet of six other ships and guided by Captain Jean Ribault, who operated under the order of King Charles IX of France. The fleet was packed with munitions, gold, silver, supplies, livestock, and nearly 1,000 soldiers, seamen, and French Huguenot colonists—Protestants seeking religious freedom. The goal was to replenish France’s Fort Caroline, on the northeast coast of Florida, and grab a foothold in America—much of which Spain had already claimed. Within weeks of the fleet’s departure, the Spanish king sent his own captain, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, along with five Spanish ships, to intercept the French. He ordered Menéndez to drive out the French with “fire and blood.”
The French arrived before the Spanish could catch up, but La Trinité and three of the other French ships were wrecked in a storm. Emboldened, Menéndez led his men on a march through swampy wetlands to launch a surprise attack on Fort Caroline. Over 100 French perished. Not long after, hundreds more who refused to convert to Catholicism fell to the sword of Menéndez, in an attack so brutal that the area is still called Matanzas (Slaughter) Inlet. Menéndez founded Saint Augustine, today the oldest city in the United States. Spain now definitively controlled a huge chunk of the country—La Florida, which contained present-day Florida plus parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and southeastern Louisiana. The Spanish almost immediately began building new forts up and down the coast, as far north as the Carolinas. Though Spain suffered some losses over the years, it remained in control of La Florida (aside from a brief intercession by the British) until 1821 when the United States assumed control. Americans tend to think of themselves as a British colony that won freedom in 1776, but the country was first a Spanish colony and Menéndez a founding father about whom one scholar declared: “Spain owed him a monument History, a book and the Muses, a poem.”
The tides of history, untold wealth, clashing religious beliefs, a battle over the United States of America—what find could be richer? Back then, says Delgado, “we were on the brink of what would become a global society. It was a time when the movement of a ship could change the world.” La Trinité, by sinking, did just that.
In June 2016, shortly after Pritchett made the announcement about his discovery, Florida began to confer with France. “This is an unusual, and potentially precedent setting situation,” Timothy Parsons, historic preservation officer at the Florida Department of State, wrote in a letter to Pritchett on June 8. On June 20, he wrote again: “As you’ve pointed out, if these sites belong to Ribault’s fleet they could be extremely significant to the history of Florida, and France. With that in mind, we are doing our diligence to reach out to the French government for input. We are also considering implications related to the Sunken Military Craft Act.”
The Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, a U.S. federal act, protects any vessel that was on a military mission, allowing the originating country to claim their ship even centuries later. By November 2017, France had officially claimed ownership of the artifacts in the admiralty division of the U.S. district court in Orlando. Florida supported that claim. Pritchett, in turn, contended that nobody had yet proven the artifacts belonged to La Trinité, and that evidence suggested the ship might actually lie about 145 kilometers north, near where Chuck Meide had looked. Over time, Pritchett came to believe that the artifacts might belong to a Spanish vessel that had stolen the French cannons and column. In the summer of 2018, two long years after Pritchett’s discovery, the federal district court concluded that the remains were indeed those of La Trinité and ruled in favor of France. The standard agreement between Florida and salvors—where the salvor reaps 80 percent of the profits from a find and the state takes 20 percent—was dismissed. In December 2018, the State of Florida and the Republic of France announced they had signed a declaration of intent to “embark on a historic partnership to research and preserve the Trinité shipwreck.” They are still working out the details.
For Pritchett, the decision was devastating. Millions of dollars of investor funding and years of labor were lost. But this is far from the first time a salvor has lost all rights to a discovery. In 2012, for instance, Spain won a five-year legal battle against Odyssey Marine Exploration, which had hauled 594,000 gold and silver coins from a Spanish wreck off the coast of Portugal across the Atlantic to the United States. An even more notorious case was that of treasure hunter Phil Greco, who with the aid of local fishermen spent 11 years off the coast of the Philippines collecting artifacts spanning 2,000 years of Chinese history. He packed his home in California with 23,500 pieces of porcelain and thousands of plates from the Ming Dynasty, some as heavy as 45 kilograms. The collection was to be auctioned off at Guernsey’s Auction in New York City, New York, but shortly after Greco unveiled it, he found himself the target of angry archaeologists and the Philippine government, who claimed his permits were invalid. The legal quagmire spun out over years and eventually ruined him. “Treasure hunters can be naive,” says attorney David Concannon, who has had several maritime archaeologists as clients and represented two sides in the battles over the Titanic for 20 years. “Many treasure hunters don’t understand they are going to have to fight for their rights against a government that has an endless supply of money for legal battles that treasure hunters are likely to lose.”
Pritchett did not appeal the State of Florida’s decision. Instead, he mounted a new legal battle and says he wants $250-million “for what they have done and cost GME.” Among other allegations, the suit maintains that Florida breached GME’s intellectual property by sharing the GPS coordinates with France without the company’s knowledge or permission. “The only reason the region has any archaeological knowledge is because of treasure hunters that do it the right way,” Pritchett contends.
If the story of La Trinité were an epic novel, then Chuck Meide and Bobby Pritchett would be opposing and equally dashing figures, both persuasive and indefatigable men intimately yoked to the ship’s fate—yet viewing each other with equal measures of derision.
The 56-year-old Pritchett built over 900 homes in southern Georgia before deciding to “follow my dream—treasures in the sea.” He is a tall, slender man whose measured way of speaking, silvery-brown hair, and soft, fine features belie an exacting and obsessive nature. At one point, he had 62 diving certifications, all at the level of an instructor, for everything from cave diving to rescue diving. At the home he recently built in the enclave of Sebastian, Florida, there’s a clean-swept, tropical-bright feel nearly 70 spiral-bound and hard-spine notebooks pack his oak shelves. They document finds from many of the dives his company has taken over the past 10 years. “We GPS and photograph and document everything we find,” he explains, “even if it’s a steel-toe shoe, airplane engine, shrimp boat, rocket, fish trap, or tire.”
The first time I spoke with Pritchett—in June 2018—he woke me up. A perpetual early riser, he was returning my phone call, at around 6:00 a.m. “I don’t want to talk about the case,” he began, referring to the court battle over La Trinité that was about to conclude, and then he proceeded to talk off the record for nearly an hour. This was my first hint that Pritchett was obsessed.
Meide, at 48, is also exacting and driven by his own passions—particularly La Trinité. He not only read about it in school, he recalls his father telling him that Menéndez and his men may have marched right through their backyard. Those sunken ships were always at the back of his mind, and in 2000, at an archaeology conference in Quebec, he turned to colleague John de Bry and said, “We need to figure out how the heck to find those Ribault ships.” In the late summer of 2014, he thought he might achieve his dream. After obtaining over $100,000 in funding from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the State of Florida, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, and other sources, he and a crew went looking for the ship. They spent weeks surveying a stretch of the ocean 9.3-kilometers long, analyzing the data, and inspecting the targets they had found. But Meide and his crew turned up only modern debris.
Meide’s first reaction when he heard La Trinité had likely been discovered was joy, but his second reaction was horror. “The worst thing that could happen to a shipwreck is to be found by a treasure hunter. Better that it not be found at all,” he says, rocking back in his desk chair on the day in late August that I visit him at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. He was worried about the worst-case scenario—Pritchett going out at night, diving to the wreck, and stealing artifacts.
Meide’s dread was only amplified when, as he puts it, “Bobby Pritchett went rogue.” As Florida aligned itself with France, Pritchett’s dreams of working with the state to excavate the ship and taking an 80 percent cut evaporated. Meide cringed when he learned that Pritchett was alleged to have taken artifacts such as a cannonball, pickaxe, and ballast stones from the wreck without permission of the state. Says Meide: “He used those to go to admiralty court and try to get ownership of the wreck that way.” Admiralty laws pertain to the open seas, beyond state waters. The bid did not succeed, and Pritchett was ordered to return the artifacts to the Florida Department of State. In Pritchett’s interpretation of his permit, however, he was allowed to bring up artifacts.
Salvors like Pritchett protest that archaeologists are willing to let ships decay in the dark deeps. And what if part of the appeal is a gargantuan cache of coins and gold? Pritchett makes no bones about the fact that the potential profit of treasure hunting historical finds is a powerful lure. “I can go back to developing homes and make three million gross profit a year,” he says. “But I could go out and find one ship that’s worth half a billion.”
On the web’s most popular treasure-hunting forum, treasurenet.com, Pritchett took the moniker of Black Duck (an homage, he says, to the moniker Black Swan, taken by the late “godfather of treasure hunting,” Robert Marx). There, he poured out his thoughts and gripes during the court battle over La Trinité, and estimated the worth of his finds. On April 30, 2017, Black Duck posted, “I believe we are looking at 50 mil for what we have found already.” De Bry, the historian, and others vehemently disagree. “The figures Mr. Pritchett gave are absolutely ridiculously inflated,” de Bry says. “One million dollars for a bronze cannon? We know from auction record that similar cannons have sold for $35,000 to $50,000, regardless of their origin.”
Putting an inflated price on artifacts rather than viewing them as cultural and historical treasures that transcend any price is what inflames many archaeologists. For the archaeologist, everything in a wreck matters, explains Delgado. “Archaeology is more than blowing a hole in the bottom of the ocean to find a monument and say, ‘What is it worth?’” he says, “Hair, fabric, a fragment of a newspaper, rat bones, cockroach shells—all things speak volumes. We don’t want artifacts ending up on a mantelpiece or in a private collection instead of taking us on a journey of understanding. I understand the magic of that journey. I was one of those kids who had my first dig at age 14.”
Conservation of a ship can go on for years and with a kind of dedicated care that is breathtaking. It took over a decade to treat, extract, mend, and piece together a million shards of broken glassware from the famous “glass wreck,” an 11th-century Byzantine merchant ship discovered in the Serçe Limani bay off the coast of Turkey in the 1970s. The ship was excavated by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and Texas A&M University. The restored glass vessels from the ship now constitute the largest collection of medieval Islamic glass in existence. George Bass, one of the great, early practitioners of underwater archaeology, who long held a teaching and research chair in nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University, coauthored two volumes on the ship’s excavation. He explains why artifacts must be preserved: “We excavated a seventh-century Byzantine ship found in Yassada, and we must have raised 1,000 amphoras that all looked identical, but then one of the Turkish graduate students noticed graffiti on the glass, and that graffiti alone enabled us to determine that the ship belonged to a church and was carrying wine over land and sea to Byzantine troops in a certain city.”
Bass has testified in court against treasure hunters, but says archaeology is not without its own serious problems. He believes archaeologists need to do a better job themselves instead of routinely chastising treasure hunters. “Archaeology has a terrible reputation for not publishing enough on its excavations and finds,” he says. Collating data, exhuming and meticulously preserving and examining finds, verifying identity and origin, piecing together the larger story, and writing and publishing a comprehensive paper or book can take decades. A bit wryly, Bass describes colleagues who never published because they waited so long they became ill or died. “We are likely never to publish the third volume on the Serçe Limani, for example,” he says, “since my colleague is as old as I am. He’s 86.”
Who is more at fault, Bass asks, the professional archaeologist who carefully excavates a site and never publishes on it or the treasure hunter who locates a submerged wreck, salvages part, conserves part, and publishes a book on the operation? “I’m speaking of [salvor] Tommy Thompson and his discovery of the SS Central America,” he says. “He published America’s Lost Treasure in 1998.” On the other hand, Bass adds, Thompson was dishonest in 2000, he sold gold recovered from the ship for $52-million, and in 2015, was arrested for swindling his investors out of their share a jury awarded the investors $19.4-million in compensatory damages.
Pritchett concedes that his find deserves careful excavation and preservation. “I think what I found should go in a museum,” he says. “But I also think I should get paid for what I found.”
Indeed, it’s a bit of a mystery why nations, states, archaeologists, and treasure hunters can’t work together—and why salvors aren’t at least given a substantial finder’s fee before the original owner takes possession of the vessel and its artifacts. “That’s actually a good idea,” says Bass, noting that the Italian government gave Stefano Mariottini, a chemist from Rome, a finder’s fee for his chance discovery of the famous Riace Warriors, two full-sized Greek bronzes cast about 460 BCE. Mariottini had been scuba diving when he found them.
During precolonial and colonial times, pirates, naval battles, and storms converged again and again to send whole armadas and their riches down to the shallow, coral-dotted waters off Florida’s boundaries.
Today, the state’s famed “treasure coast” stretches from Roseland to Jupiter Sound. The name was inspired by 11 Spanish ships, all from a single fleet, that went down in 1715. In 1928, a salvor named William J. Beach located Urca de Lima, part of the 1715 fleet. He raised 16 cannons and four anchors, which were put on display in the town of Fort Pierce. That was the genesis of treasure fever in the United States from then on, the hunt for shipwrecks was on. Between 1932 and 1964, more than 50 leases were issued by Florida to salvors.
In 1961, a treasure hunter named Kip Wagner and his crew found and recovered about 4,000 silver coins from the treasure coast. They formed a team, called Real Eight, and ultimately salvaged over $6-million in coins and artifacts from the 1715 Spanish fleet. The collection was impressive enough to grace the January 1965 issue of National Geographic.
Back then, there was no animosity between archaeologists and treasure hunters, who often worked side by side. John de Bry first dove with Wagner in the 1960s, after a personal letter of introduction from Jacques Cousteau. Says de Bry, “At that time, underwater archaeology was in its infancy, and we didn’t think there was anything wrong with what Kip Wagner was doing.”
In the 1960s, underwater archaeology was a field so small that the heads of projects around the world could fit into one conference room. The instruments were crude by today’s standards Wagner detected his first ship using a 12-meter naval boat and a $15 metal detector. Today, explorers use magnetometers that can detect buried metal, sonar devices, hydraulic dredges, and machines called prop-wash deflectors that help blast sand off the ocean floor. What used to be marked with a buoy alone is now marked by GPS as well, with far greater accuracy for return dives. Commercial divers can go down an astounding 300 meters today, adjusting gases they breathe as they go, guided by small computers they take with them.
After Wagner’s success, Florida established laws to regulate shipwreck discoveries. For decades, treasure hunters ruled the day, sometimes taking home hundreds of millions of dollars after winning tough court battles. Salvors found and fought for rights to the “Jupiter wreck,” discovered in 1988 south of Jupiter Inlet near Palm Beach county. They recovered over 18,000 silver coins. The world’s most famous explorer of the high seas, Mel Fisher, won rights to Spain’s Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sunk near the Dry Tortugas islands, over 56 kilometers west of Key West, Florida, in 1622. The discovery was valued at nearly $400-million. Fisher searched for that ship for 16 years, finding telltale silver bars and cannons from the ship along the way and then discovering the ship and its motherlode of emeralds and gold in 1985. He fought Florida for eight years before he won exclusive rights in 1992.
Fisher’s case was a turning point, however. His case rested on the fact that the boat lay in the Straits of Florida, which in 1974 had been designated part of the Atlantic Ocean, thus federal and not state waters. Federal admiralty laws trumped state laws. Fisher proved that Spain had effectively abandoned the ship by never searching for it. His case, which went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, set a precedent that extended salvors’ rights to other wrecks at sea. Salvors then began to sue Florida, citing Fisher and admiralty rights.
At the same time, the public’s perception of shipwrecks was evolving—or, one might say, molting into something entirely new. Countries like Spain had felt the sting of losses—not only of buried riches but also of cultural heritage. Maritime archaeology had matured, with doctoral programs at numerous universities in the United States, including Florida and Texas. According to David Concannon, the maritime attorney who handled much of the litigation over the Titanic, the salvage of the Titanic in 1987 raised alarm bells among governments and archaeologists around the world. Archaeologists, says Concannon, recoiled at a proposal by a salvor who planned to haul up the contents of the Titanic with a giant claw—a very crude technique.
In 1988, the United States enacted the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. The law dictates that rights to newly discovered ships within 22 kilometers of shore belong to the states. Beyond 22 kilometers, ships are considered lost on the high seas (therefore potentially available to salvors). For a wreck to be considered the property of a state, however, it has to be “embedded” in the mud and sand, and the meaning of the term has been argued in courts.
Then, in 2000, Spain won a historic case that helped formalize a new view of cultural rights to sunken ships. After a long battle, a federal appeals court ruled that Spain had rights to two ships treasure hunter Ben Benson had found off the coast of Virginia, estimated to be worth $500-million in coins and precious metals. Both La Galga (which sank in 1750) and Juno (which sank in 1802) were returned to Spain, and Spain allowed the artifacts to be exhibited in Virginia indefinitely. The United Kingdom and the United States had sided with Spain, suggesting that in the future, governments would cooperate with distant countries to the detriment of treasure hunters.
The attorney who led that case, James A. Goold of Covington & Burlington in Washington, D.C., is now a legend in nautical archaeology. An archaeology student in the 1970s and a diver who spends his spare time on nautical archaeology projects, he was knighted by Spain in 1999 for his efforts in this case. At the time, recalls Goold, “Virginia was giving permission to treasure hunters to explore sunken Spanish navy ships. It hadn’t dawned on people that the sunken ships of other nations are entitled to the same protection we expect for our own ships in foreign waters.”
Another blow to treasure hunters came in 2001, when UNESCO established the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which protects all underwater traces of human existence that are more than 100 years old. Though the United States has not ratified this convention, 58 countries have signed on, including Spain, France, and Italy, and the ripple effect is felt by all.
Once the Sunken Military Craft Act came into effect in 2004, countries had two layers of U.S. legal protection. The military craft act has had huge repercussions for treasure hunters since most European ships sent sailing on the high seas centuries ago carried artillery and were effectively warships, even when they had no intention of going to war.
When Goold quashed Odyssey Marine Exploration’s claim to the wreck off Portugal in 2012, salvors reeled again. With that victory, which earned Goold the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit from Spain, the lawyer had fundamentally reshaped interpretation of maritime law and how we approach treasure hunting. Gone are the days of camaraderie, when archaeologists regularly dove alongside salvors. In Concannon’s view, “In the early to mid-1990s, we were trying to get everybody to work together, but it was like an intifada.” Though independent archaeologists will sometimes work with treasure hunters, the two sides are no longer allied.
For Goold, it’s simple: “Ships that belong to foreign nations remain the property of foreign nations and the wishes of foreign nations are to be respected.” Not surprisingly, it was Goold to whom France turned when fighting for rights to La Trinité.
Talk to almost any maritime archaeologist, and his or her contempt for treasure hunters is palpable. As Paul Johnston, the curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., points out, you can’t break into your neighbors’ house and steal all of their valuables.
Even the rare archaeologist who sympathizes with treasure hunters seems to also sigh with exasperation: “They’re like children who just got finished reading Treasure Island,” says Donald Keith, a founder of Ships of Discovery, an educational non-profit in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But talk to any treasure hunter, and his or her simmering resentment of archaeologists is equally vivid. “I call them ‘burearchs,’” the late Robert Marx the so-called father of treasure hunting in America, said in the fall of 2018.
Yet when you sit down with the men and women who pursue underwater exploration, they seem more similar than not. They are built of the same clay: adventurers, scuba divers, explorers in love with the deep-blue sea, and to a last one they are mesmerized by shipwrecks. Meide, the chief archaeologist at the Saint Augustine museum, remembers the first time he felt the ribs of a wrecked ship in mud. “I thought to myself, this could have been a Spanish merchant ship. It could have been a pirate ship. From that point I never quit. I knew this is what I want to do.”
Those who are driven by obsession are usually relentless about fine details. Meide boasts about finding a mouse toenail and spider jaw on expeditions. These sorts of discoveries evoke the daily life and diseases of long-ago seafarers. In touring the museum, he shows me how concretions—hardened muddy gunk that cover an artifact—are chipped away with tiny tools like dental picks for weeks and months at a time.
Salvors and archaeologists are bonded by the ships, whether they like it or not. If the treasure hunter finds the ship, the archaeologist pieces together its smashed hull, raises coins and ingots out of the ocean, restores its cannons. And for both, it’s a way of holding and perhaps reshaping our view of the past. The 16th century is “when the Old World and the New World came to meet each other and everything changed,” Meide rhapsodizes. “This is the pivotal century.”
At 76, de Bry can’t get ships out of his blood either. He has been diving for wrecks since he was a teenager and went scuba diving recently to investigate a 1400s shipwreck in Jamaica. He grew up in both France and the United States and made three trips to the National Library of France in 2017 to research La Trinité. “I found a gold mine of manuscript documents pertaining to the dispatches between the French ambassador to the Spanish court and King Charles IX and Catherine de’ Medici,” he says. One of the letters from Queen de’ Medici made clear that, though the French monarchy may have denied it, they knew all along they had sent “seditious” Protestants to America. And that kind of find, says de Bry, “is treasure more important than anything else you can think of. It’s the treasure of history.” De Bry is likely to be hired to help analyze the artifacts and establish their place in history.
To every man a different treasure, but to each an irresistible force that looms larger than their own lives. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Nostromo, “There is something in a treasure that fastens upon a man’s mind. He will pray and blaspheme and still persevere, and will curse the day he ever heard of it, and will let his last hour come upon him unawares, still believing that he missed it only by a foot.”
At Pritchett’s house in Sebastian, a stone’s throw from a museum built by Mel Fisher, the salt air is balmy, the South Florida light weightless and brilliant. The receding ocean and its buried ships still beckon. Laws may have tightened and governments may have claimed his finds, but he is now refocusing on wrecks that exist beyond the reach of such regulations. The dream will not die. “I’m going out to international waters next time, where local governments can’t interfere,” he says. “I can tell you, there are ships in deep water not far from where I live now that are worth billions of dollars.”
Meanwhile, James Delgado’s firm, SEARCH, has offered to facilitate a unique international partnership between Florida and France to excavate and restore La Trinité. Ships, says Delgado, contain “the story of all of us.” We are, in every age and at every turn, humans caught in the fateful gears of events much larger than ourselves. “By better understanding these colonial encounters with a new world,” says Delgado, “we can ready ourselves for the time when humanity sets foot on other planets.” And so it seems fitting, almost fated, that one of the greatest shipwreck finds in recent history occurred at the very spit of land where rockets regularly blast off into space.
1 RMS Republic
In 1981, researchers located the RMS Republic, an ocean-liner built in 1903 and lost at sea in 1909. It is believed that the ship went down with a whole lot of treasure that could be worth billions of dollars.
Without a doubt, there are a number of rumors circulating around this ship. One of them is that the RMS was carrying USA gold coins worth a minimum worth of $250,000. Another rumor is that the ship was carrying $3,000,000 in coins as a loan to Russia. Unfortunately, the treasure itself was never found. But we have a feeling researchers and treasure hunters especially aren’t going to give up too soon.