It was a Spanish galleon so lavishly laden with treasure that its sinking in the Bahamas in 1656 prompted repeated salvage attempts over the next 350 years. When another expedition was recently launched, few thought there might be anything left – but exquisite jeweled pendants and gold chains are among the spectacular finds now being recovered after lying untouched on the seabed for hundreds of years.
The Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas (Our Lady of Miracles) sank on the western side of the Little Bahama Bank more than 70km offshore, but the newfound treasures were found along a vast debris trail that stretched more than 13km.
Allen Exploration, involving Bahamian and US marine archaeologists and divers, has been licensed by the Bahamian government to scientifically explore the Maravillas and has committed to displaying the finds in a new museum in the Bahamas.
An intricate filigree gold chain with rosette motifs is among the treasures, suggesting that some of the discoveries were intended for wealthy aristocrats, if not royalty. A gold pendant with the Cross of Santiago (St. James) and an Indian bezoar stone, valued at the time in Europe for its healing properties, has the shape of a scallop, the symbol worn by pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia is recognized. It is among finds linked to the Order of Saint James, a military-religious order of chivalry that protected pilgrims and was active in Spanish maritime trade.
Another pendant shows a gold cross of St. JamesSantiago over a large green oval emerald, framed by a dozen square emeralds, perhaps symbolizing the 12 apostles.
Clusters of emeralds and amethysts mined in Colombia and now recovered offer evidence of smuggling as they were not registered on the list.
dr Sean Kingsley, an English marine archaeologist and editor of Wreckwatch magazine, which will feature the finds in an upcoming issue, told the Observer that such “wonders” are particularly dramatic because they lie in the middle of nowhere under dense sand. “This is successful archaeological keyhole surgery,” he said.
The Maravillas, named after a 13th-century “miraculous” sculpture of the Virgin Mary in a Madrid convent, was part of a fleet. It was en route from Havana to Spain carrying treasures from America, both royal and private shipments, as well as contraband and a lavish cargo rescued by another Spanish galleon wrecked off Ecuador.Artist’s rendering of Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas, built in 1647. Photo: ©Allen Exploration
But around midnight on January 4, 1656, it sank after a navigational error while evading shallow waters. When it collided with its flagship, it struck a reef and only 45 of 650 people on board survived. Many were eaten by sharks.
Allen Exploration was founded by Carl Allen, who before his early retirement built a successful plastics business and became a philanthropist and explorer with two passions – the Bahamas and its lost past.
“It took my breath away when we brought up the emerald and gold oval pendant,” he said. “I feel more connected to everyday finds than coins and jewels, but these Santiago finds connect both worlds. The pendant fascinates me when I hold it in my hand and think about its history. How these tiny followers survived in these rough waters and how we managed to find them is the marvel of the Maravillas.”
He added: “The galleon wreck had a tough history – it was heavily recovered by Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Bahamian and American expeditions in the 17th and 18th centuries and looted by salvagers from the 1970s to early 1990s. Some say the remains were ground to dust. With the help of modern technology and sound science, we are now pursuing a long and tortuous trail of finds.”A gold filigree chain from the Maravillas. Photo: Nathaniel Harrington
Convinced that the entire ship was not destroyed, he assembled a team and ships to search for the lost stern castle, believed to have broken off and drifted adrift. But he wanted to study the wreck archaeologically, unlike his predecessors who didn’t publish science and simply sold finds.
His team uses cutting-edge science to figure out how the Maravillas were destroyed and then scattered by hurricanes over the centuries.
The expedition is also collecting data on reef health, seabed geology and plastic pollution to understand how archeology and the marine environment interact.
“The seabed is barren,” Allen said. “The brightly colored coral divers remembered from the 1970s is gone, poisoned by ocean acidification and smothered by meters of shifting sand. It’s achingly sad. However, sparkling finds still lie atop these dead gray reefs.”
The team recorded stone ballast, iron fasteners that once held the hull together, and iron rings and pins from the rigging. Evidence of food on board was also found, ranging from olive jars to Chinese and Mexican plates, and personal effects, including a silver sword hilt and a soldier’s pearl ring.
All wreckage in Bahamas waters is the property of the Bahamas government and Allen Exploration is keeping the finds together by sponsoring the Bahamas Maritime Museum, which opens August 8 in Freeport.