On 24 November 2016

On August 21st, 1620, a group we now call the “Pilgrims” set sail in two ships from England to found a church of their own and start a new life in the boundless potential of the New World. It’s a familiar story, especially around Thanksgiving. What many people don’t know is that the story of the most famous Spanish treasure galleon of all time, the Atocha, was unfolding at the exact same moment across the Atlantic.

Five days prior to the Pilgrims’ departure, on August 16th, 1620, the construction of a new 110 foot long galleon christened Nuestra Señora de Atocha was completed in a Havana shipyard. Named after the Virgin of a Catholic shrine in Madrid, a portrait of “Our Lady of Atocha” was painted on her sterncastle (the uppermost part on the back of the ship). The Atocha was commissioned to provide much needed protection against pirates for the critically important Spanish treasure fleet of 1622. Spain was involved in an expensive war in Europe, which they paid for on credit, and New World treasure could not fall into the hands of pirates if they were to pay their growing debts.

Meanwhile, only 300 miles into the Pilgrims’ journey, one of their two ships was leaking so badly that they returned to England. 102 passengers crowded onto their one remaining seaworthy ship, an 80 foot long merchant ship called the Mayflower, and set sail from Plymouth, England on September 6th.

After a storm-tossed and treacherous voyage, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod at sunrise on November 9th.  They made landfall after narrowly avoiding being shipwrecked in a storm off of Cape Cod, and began exploring. By the end of 1620, they had found a suitable site and had started construction on the first buildings at Plymouth settlement.

Late in 1620, the Atocha sailed from Havana for Spain where she would be outfitted for her return trip to the New World as a key component of the Spanish “Tierra Firma” Treasure Fleet of 1622. It's possible that the Mayflower and the Atocha were sailing across the Atlantic in opposite directions at the same moment.

In the latter months of 1621 (the exact date is not known), the surviving Pilgrims and members of the nearby Wampanoag tribe congregated in Plymouth for a three-day harvest feast consisting of venison, fish, fowl (including wild turkeys), and corn. This, of course, is considered the origin of our modern Thanksgiving tradition.

At the very same time, in Sanlúcar harbor near Cadíz, Spain, preparations were underway to supply the Atocha with necessary armaments and foodstores for the long journey. The sailors’ daily rations included a quart of wine, two pounds of biscuits, an ounce and a half of olive oil, half a quart of vinegar, and a small piece of cheese. Less frequently, meals were prepared from stores of dried peas and beans, rice, and salted pork. Already an inferior menu to the Pilgrims’ feast, these food items were made even less appetizing by poor preservation during the long ocean journey.

The Atocha was, however, eventually bestowed with a great bounty of treasure. She was carrying much of the material wealth exported from the Spanish Main (South America), including approximately $750 million dollars worth of silver bars, the silver coins called “pieces of eight,” Colombian emeralds, gold chains, and many other incredible artifacts when she sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys on September 6th, 1622. 

 

66 lb silver bar from the Atocha, one of 900 silver bars listed on her manifest

 

 

 

Citations:

Daley, R. (1977). Treasure. New York: Random House.

Lyon, E. (1979). The search for the Atocha. New York: Harper & Row.

(n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2016, from http://mayflowerhistory.com/

 

On 04 April 2015

This elegant high karat gold pyx, (frame and insert) was hand crafted in the late 1600's - early 1700's for transporting a host (communion wafer). The elaborate gold filigree insert is called a lunette which features the monstrance. There is a very thin space between the frame and the lunette, the host would have been placed there to be displayed behind the "sun" element on a stem. Only gold can touch the host once it has been consecrated.

In the 16th century the monstrance took its present shape: a circular window set under a cross and surrounded with "sun" rays. The wafer would be held in the center of the sun. First used in France and Germany in the 14th century, when popular devotion to the Blessed Sacrament developed, monstrances were modeled after pyxes or reliquaries, sacred vessels for transporting the host or relics. The host was shown in a glass cylinder mounted on a base and surmounted by some sort of metal crown. These were displayed on the altar of churches and cathedrals.

This pyx has an ornate bail attached so that it could have been worn on a cord or chain to be carried somewhere, possibly to serve last rites.

 

Researched by Faye Asano, Big Blue Wreck Salvage, Inc. and Donna Pierce, Denver Art Museum

On 14 June 2013

A friend of ours in the Bahamas had a close brush with a large reef shark recently. As you can see from the photos, the shark was not too pleased with his vessel.

He came upon some divers who were being monitored pretty closely by a shark, so he decided to try and drive it away. He circled around the area, expecting that the noise of his engine would encourage the shark to move out of the area.

Everyone thought the shark had moved on when it reappeared and took a sizeable bite out of the flotation tube! The shark certainly made its feelings about the boat known, but boater and divers all made it back to shore unharmed.

On 03 May 2013

Here’s an interesting piece from our collection! This 3rd century BC Roman bowl was recovered from the Grand Congloué shipwreck site, 10 miles off the coast of Marseilles, France. As you can see, it’s in incredible shape, with the glaze mostly intact, and the 7 petal flower design at the bottom of the bowl still visible. It is a type of pottery known as Campanian Black Ware, produced in Southern Italy beginning in the 5th century BC. You can see some of the encrustation from its long stay underwater on the side of the bowl.

The story of the recovery of this piece is also historic. The field of underwater archaeology was in its infancy in the summer of 1952 when Jacques Cousteau and his team found this wreck. Over the next five years, the team salvaged the wreck, and discovered two ancient wrecks, separated by at least a century, layered one on top of the other.

Item was acquired from the Thomas H. Sebring Collection in 2004.

On 24 March 2013

We just had a chance to see a special presentation by the Texas Marine Archaeologist in Galveston, TX featuring recoveries from the wreck of the Hannah Elizabeth (1835), a schooner that was on a gun trafficking mission. During the Texan Revolution (the conflict between the Texan colonists and Mexico for Texan independence) she was heading from New Orleans to Texas to supply the Texan Army. She was pursued by a Mexican warship and became stuck on a sandbar. Much of the contraband cargo was thrown overboard by the worried crew. The Mexican warship opened fire on their beached target, and eventually boarded her, but abandoned her and retreated when bad weather forced them to move their own vessel to safety. Though Texan forces reached the Hannah Elizabeth after the retreat, the ship rolled, broke apart and sank. In the picture above you can see elements of one of the recovered flintlock muskets, next to a replica for reference.

Among the cargo were cannons, cannonballs, bar-shot, and muskets. Some of the muskets were British, and had been collected following the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. The bayonet below is British.

 

On 01 March 2013

Lords of War

 

Here is a look behind the scenes at the taping of National Geographic Channel's Lords of War! Mel appeared as a guest expert, evaluating the authenticity of the silver bar you can see on the table. A beautiful piece and a true Atocha original!

Here's a fun fact: that bar weighed about 80 pounds, despite the fact that it is about the size of a loaf of bread. We know from experience to always check the stability of the table before trusting it to hold a bar like this.

You are here: Home Blog