SPAIN’S SEA TREASURE –NOT UP FOR GRABS
Staff Reporter / 2010-10-15 12:27:07
The Spanish sea bed is alleged to be littered with treasure from sunken ships dating back over 4 centuries.
Now that a multitude of new technology makes finding the sunken gold and valuable antiques a lot easier, the race is on to see who is capable of locating the booty first. Odyssey Marine Exploration took home a trove of gold and silver from the wreck of the Spanish vessel Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes two years ago, not without a fair amount of controversy. The treasure hunters have yet to return their find, despite several court decisions in Spain’s favour.
Ever since, authorities have started taking the protection of the country’s underwater archaeological heritage seriously. Until recently, only the regions of Catalonia, Valencia and Andalusia had specific centres devoted to this type of cultural asset. But now, the central government is getting involved and the navy recently sent the minesweeper Sella out for a month to comb the bottom of the Gulf of Cádiz in search of archaeological remains.
This was the first time that military units were involved in such a task, following an agreement reached last year between the Culture and Defence Ministries. But this kind of cooperation is expected to become commonplace as authorities seek to chart the archaeological remains lying in waters off the entire coast of Spain. Experts estimate that there may be around 3,000 shipwrecks yet to be explored in this vestige-rich part of the world.
During the month that the minesweeper was out in the Gulf of Cádiz, it located 128 wrecks at depths of no more than 200 meters. Archaeologists are now determining how many of these, if any, are of historical value. When a shipwreck is located less than 50 meters below the surface, the initial analysis will be carried out by divers. For ships deeper down mechanical devices will be deployed.
Of the 15 wrecks studied so far, the only item of any value is an anchor dating back to the 18th century. Most of the other remains will very likely be ignored. “They could turn out to be washing machines,” admits the technical chief of the mission, Daniel González-Aller.
So far, explorers have found vestiges of what might be city ruins and several ship-like structures, but as yet there is no trace of the two most desirable shipwrecks, that of the Santísima Trinidad (sunk during the battle of Trafalgar in 1805) or the Reina Regente (a galleon that went down during a storm in the late 19th century). “We will keep looking,” announced Defence Minister Carme Chacón, speaking aboard the Sella. “Where some see booty, we see our history. Where others seek gold, we look for our heritage. Where others would like to plunder, we want to preserve.”
The statement was a warning to other would-be treasure hunters — and the coast of Cádiz, on the southern tip of Spain, is certainly abundant in treasure: it is estimated to hold between 17 and 27 percent of the 3,000 shipwrecks along the entire Spanish coast. Identifying exactly how many there are and where they are located will help protect them, believes the director general of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets, Ángeles Albert, who adds that the resulting charts will not become “public information,” offsetting fears that the initiative may in fact be helpful to looters.