The pillaging of ancient shipwrecks does great damage

The looting of historic shipwrecks, prehistoric sacrificial sites and sunken graves is one of the biggest problems for their preservation today. Modern equipment and technological tools facilitate underwater archaeology, but unfortunately also treasure hunting. Extensive pillage is taking place under water and even sites located deep in the ocean have already been subject to unethical artefact recovery.

The damage done in this way is beyond any financial interests that treasure hunters may have in their booty. A cruel example is this historic bronze cannon from a Spanish shipwreck found in Panama.

In the waters of the country sank some 80 historic ships that came originally from Spain. Many of them went to the seabed still carrying cargo. Today, many have been pilfered, looted and destroyed. The here depicted Spanish bronze cannon, which is now preserved in the museum area of Panama Viejo, was originally in the hands of a looter. While it is particularly well preserved and beautifully decorated, a horrible mutilation took place. Where the bizarre cut marks on the above picture are to be seen, used to be located a handle in form of a dolphin. This intricate dolphin sculpture has been cut off. The cannon is greatly damaged, while the financial gain of the looter must have been absolutely minimal in contrast to the loss.  One wonders whether the one who caused this damage really ignored what he was doing at the moment of his action.

Another especially sad case of treasure hunt, that of the San José salvage,
happened equally in Panama. This ship – a 400-tonne Spanish war galleon – sank on 17 June 1631, in the waters of the Gulf of Panama. After running aground on a sandbank near Punta Garachiné, part of the ship’s hull broke away, leaving another part of the ship adrift and scattering its precious cargo to the east of Isla del Rey in the Las Perlas Archipelago. Part of the remains that were still floating drifted away, finally sinking in the vicinity of Isla Contadora, Isla Saboga and Isla Chapera.

After various recovery attempts by the Spanish colonial authorities, a large part of the remains rested for centuries protected by the ocean. The 400,000 pesos in coins and 267 silver bars with a total value of 1,000 pesos and a total weight of more than 17,000 pounds, that remained under water, were however enough to make treasure-hunters interested.

The crude recovery operations that followed cut deep holes in the ocean floor and did not respect scientific research or conservation standards. Only a decisive intervention of the national authorities, supported by UNESCO, put an end to the situation. The artifacts are now with the government and should now, hopefully soon, go on exhibition.

U.C. Ringuer

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