Monday, April 18, 2005


There's much more than gold in them thar waters


Jamaica Observer
By Ainsley Henriques
April 17, 2005

If Egypt were to allow it, bulldozers and back hoes would descend on the valley of the Kings and the Pyramids and the graves of the Pharaohs would be no more. Grave robbing on land with modern equipment and treasure hunting in the sea with suction tubes or blowers, same thing.

Each shipwreck is a grave. People died on those ships, they went down and drowned with them. Respect is due. With them went their personal belongings telling the stories of their lives, who they were, where they came from, even what they did for a living.

And yes, there was cargo too, sometimes valuable gold or silver from the mines in the Americas destined for Spain. These were mainly Spanish ships, even though they are today in our waters.

So how do we recover their stories and with that effort, the wealth that lies there with them? The answer lies in the appropriate use of both modern technology and expertise. Some of the equipment that is used today include subsurface penetrating radar, magnetometers and other such metal detecting equipment.

The expertise is with those who know how to use and interpret the readings from the equipment. In addition, these activities must include underwater archaeologists and conservation experts.What do we hope to find? The first thing that is almost certain not to be found are the ships.

Wood rots. What can be found could include the ballast, which is likely to be stones. Then there will be the big items such as cannons, most likely covered with coral, as corals are living organisms that will attach themselves to objects on the sea floor.

With cannon there will be cannon balls, anchors and other large mainly metal objects. Ships in storms do not necessarily sink all at one time but get broken up by the reefs on which they flounder with the waves spreading the parts. However, the large heavy items tend to be together as they sink quickly.

The important human material remains will be the artefacts such as personal belongings like hair clips, jewellery such as rings, bracelets and chains, precious and semi-precious stones, statues and other such memorabilia.
Each one of these will tell its own story, sometimes who made it, where it came from, the quality of the craftsmanship, maybe even identify its owner by inscriptions and so forth.

There will be plates, knives, forks, spoons, bottles and other containers telling their story of how they ate, what was the diet, the skills of the people who made these items and the techniques that they used.

All this is invaluable information about the towns, cities and countries that the ships and their passengers and crew came from and sometimes, an indication of where they were going.And yes, there may be silver and gold and coins. How much these ships carried are, in many cases, known from the incredible records that the Spanish Empire insisted on keeping.

Research into these records is an initial primary activity of the recovery team that must include historians and marine archaeologists.

These wrecks have been there for hundreds of years. Sailors and fishermen know where most of them are. Over time, some looting of these sites may have taken place. We must remember that most ships are wrecked in shallow waters by reefs and not in the deep, unless they are sunk by waves or pirates.

So these wrecks are, as adequately described by a contributor Dennie Quill, "a time capsule, a fragment of history buried in the sea" and to that one may add "a page of the past waiting to be read".

Archaeology is a destructive science, but at least one that records its finds in such a way that they tell their stories continuously. Treasure hunting does not tell any stories other than the money that the loot brings in and that is a "one off" activity.

Treasure hunting is instant gratification and there are many aspirants with that desire on land without going to sea. The effort by the regulatory authorities, namely the Government of Jamaica and its agencies and statutory bodies such as the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, to ban treasure hunting and regulate underwater archaeology is admirable.

As a nation, we also have to regulate what happens to the underwater environment, so as not to cause damage to the coral reefs and fish breeding grounds.

We should examine what these measures are and not fall prey to the glitter of gold, because all that glisters is not gold. There is more money in the stories from the artefacts than in the gold, if it is still there, in these shipwrecks.

Ainsley Henriques is an honorary member of the Archaeological Society of Jamaica.


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