The marriage in 1469 of Isabella, heir to the throne of Castile, and Ferdinand, King of Sicily and heir to the throne of Aragon, set the stage for the unification of multiple Iberian Peninsula kingdoms and the birth of the kingdom of Spain. Their sponsorship of the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, intended to establish a western route to the Orient, but resulting in the ʻdiscoveryʼ of the Americas, was the precursor to the rise of a global empire. It was as much the lure of gold that fueled the ambitions of Christopher Columbus and the legions of Conquistadors who followed in his wake, as it was the thrill and prestige of discovery. Columbusʼs “New World” turned out to be abundant in mineral wealth, in particular the precious metal silver. The young kingdom of Spain did not have its own reliable source of mineral wealth, so with a need for money and a conviction of entitlement to acquire it at any cost, its approach was to plunder
the resources of others. By the 1500ʼs, the New World had been conquered and Spain had taken control of much of its peoples and much of its wealth. In order to control the torrent of silver flowing from rapidly colonizing Spanish dominions, royal mints were established in key locations. To convey all of this treasure, massive wooden ships were built. These sailed in organized fleets, or
flotas, each with a particular purpose and route. Each year these ships voyagedfrom Spain to the Americas along a route called the Carrera de Indias. By the time King Philip IV inherited the throne in 1621, New World silver in the form of the Spanish dollar was the most coveted money on earth. Because Spain had control of all this silver, it was the most powerful kingdom in the world. Because the royal court was lavish in itsʼ lifestyle and at war much of the time, the kingdom of Spain was also deeply in debt. When ships with rich cargos were lost due to storms, pirate raids, or human error, the economic impact was immediate, far reaching, and devastating.
( Tedesco, C., Pieces of Eight - Treasure Coins of the 1622 Shipwrecks Nuestra Senora de Atocha, Santa Margarita, and the Portuguese Carrack São José (SeaStory Press, forthcoming)
Curating the Silver Coins of the San Jose:
The coins rescued and restored by IMDI are valued for the knowledge they teach us about our cultural heritage.
Although mechanically produced coins had been introduced to some areas of Europe by the mid-16th century, until the year 1732 all coins in the Americas were struck individually by hand, so each is unique. To make coins in the 16th and 17th centuries, blanks were hand-cut from strips of silver. A heated blank, or planchet, was then sandwiched between double dies, and struck with a hammer. Any silver in excess of the requisite weight was trimmed from the outer coin’s edges until the weight was correct. This resulted in irregularly shaped coins whose insignia were frequently off center. The dies themselves were made of steel, with insignia impressed into them by direct engraving or by the sinking (stamping) of multiple die punches, each punch being a component of the coin’s design. Sometimes die punches were used to repair or update a directly engraved die; sometimes, both die punches and additional direct engraving would be employed. Appropriately sized dies were made for each denomination of coin. (Tedesco, C., Treasure Coins of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita (SeaStory Press, 2010)
Because our company mission is to find and share knowledge, we needed a qualified specialist in the field of silver coins. We chose Carol Tedesco, an internationally recognized professional coin expert proficient at designing artifact databases configured for the documentation and analysis of specific coin features and characteristics.
Carol, whose past projects include advising the government of the Republic of Mozambique, Africa, on coins recovered from the 1622 Portuguese carrack São José, was brought in to instruct and work with our team, bringing
more than two decades of experience and research to help us create what we believe to be the most up to date and comprehensive coin data tracking system in use today.
Carol applies the grading of silver shipwreck recovered coins by the degree of visible ocean wear, but there is a great deal more to curating coins than just assigning a grade. Understanding how important each coin is (no matter how small and beaten up) in gaining knowledge and uncovering secrets of our culture and of our past, we put great pride in examining each one individually. Data collection includes not only Grade, Denomination, Mint, Reign, Weight and Assayer, but also the recording of numerous subtle features and characteristics that can provide invaluable information for the advancement of our cultural, commercial and numismatic knowledge. This data is available for scholars, students, and anyone interested in learning further about the San Jose and this time period in Central and South America.
IMDI's Commitment to Environmental Impact:
IMDI has accepted the social responsibly of what our line of work requires in order to honor the environment in which we work, the ocean. We have done this by hiring well known professionals in specialized fields with proven track records of working in some of the most monitored and protected environmental sensitive areas in the US. We did this in order to ensure we were following the highest regulated and reguarded environmental standards; not because we had to, because we chose to. it is under our companies moral code to cause no harm and preserve our oceans and environment. A great example of IMDI utlizing such a specialist came about during the San Jose Project. For the San Jose Project IMDI hired one of the world leading environmental Scientist Dr. Perter J. Barile to complete a comprehensive environmental study not only on Contadora but also on the surrounding islands. Dr. Perter J. Barile concluded no environmental harm was resulting from our work and that all practices and procedures utlized by IMDI qualify for the highest environmental saftly standards accepted in the most monitored and protected environmentally sensitive arease in the US. This study was not enough for us, we followed this study by a Scientist named Hector Guzman: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama and a team of Scientist from Authority of the Aquatic Resources (ARAP), in order to further validate the saftly of our work on the environment. Again it was concluded that the work conducted by IMDI has no negative environmental impact.
This is a map that depicts several mints that were established in key areas of the New World during this time period.
An educational book written by Carol Tedesco and used to train all personnel working on the San Jose Project.
After over two years of consistent labor, the entirety of constructing and equipping a scientific laboratory, a challenging feat to say the least, a fully functioning laboratory on Contadora Island came to be. A success and an accomplishment we can all be very proud of. Although the work will never be fully completed this was an accomplishment of worthy note and a tool that can be used indefinitely.
There were many specialist necessary in the culmination of this laboratory including (but not limited to); conservators, archaeologist, curation experts, photographers, construction engineers, as well as various job specific experts.
Since the inception of the San Jose Project’s conservation laboratory the ex-power station has undergone a tremendous transformation and can now proudly be considered one of the premier laboratories of its kind in Central America.
Artifact Conservation on the San Jose Project:
A state of the art conservation facility was developed and constructed by IMDI and associated specialists on the island of Contadora. This integral part of the shipwreck project was overseen by project archaeologists, conservators, and trained lab personnel. To ensure the highest quality functioning lab, the specific methodologies accepted and practiced at the ships lab at Texas A&M University were implemented from day one and are currently the only accepted practices in this laboratory. The particular manual containing these laboratory guidelines and procedures is available for review (in English) at
What can be said generally is that organic materials are composed of cells, in wood these are fairly rigid and uniform in bone less so and in leather much less so. Cellular material becomes saturated with water over time, the cell structure itself takes in the water. Obviously as long as the water and little oxygen exist the chance for preservation is better. However if removed from the aqueous environment the object will undergo rapid and catastrophic change as the water evaporates out and the cell walls collapse the cell structure. In very short time these organic remains can be turned into dust or at best a distorted object that will lack any usefulness for the interpretation or preservation of history that the pre-recovery object might have had.
The process to halt deterioration of organic remains consists basically of replacing the water content in the cellular cavities with a stable compound. This replacement and bulking can be a lengthy process as in the case of the warship VASA 1641 - recovered out of Stockholm harbor in the late 1950’s, this was an intact warship and the massive timbers are still undergoing conservation and there is likely no real end in sight. Smaller objects can be successfully managed with various substances such as micro-crystalline waxes or various molecular weight polymers. This is where experience and consultation with other experts in the field is extremely helpful. We are lucky enough to have many such contacts upon which we can call for consultation.
Inorganic materials: This category on historic period shipwrecks such as the San Jose consisted mainly of pottery, glass and stone. These objects all went through a process by which salts were extracted. This process is fairly simple it utilizes the characteristic of the chloride contaminants to seek equilibrium with their surrounding environment. In essence the objects are given successive soaks in fresh water while chloride levels are monitored, each bath removes more chloride. Once no further chlorides were being released from the objects they were then given final treatments. With pottery of the unglazed earthenware variety this was the final step and no further conservation was considered necessary, this was also true for most of the stone artifacts recovered. Where further steps often become necessary is with glass and certain types of glazed ceramics. In these instances a conservator may feel that the impregnation of the object(s) with a polymer would enhance its stability and durability over time. But these are specialized cases.
For this project IMDI brought in highly experienced conservation specialists Ana Cepero E. Acan, Ph.D. Professor and Conservation Scientist at the University of the Arts (ISA) in Havana Cuba, and
Manuel Almeida Estevez, MSc, Professor and Conservator of Underwater Archeological Materials at the University of the Arts (ISA) in Havana, Cuba. These specialists had previously worked with Carisub in Cuba on substantial collections of shipwreck material.
In the above picture Carol documents coins recovered from the San Jose in our state of the art laboratory.
Carol is passionate about her work, and particularly fascinated with nuances that reflect the unique skills and artistic sensibilities of individual die engravers and mint workers. She has written both a book (shown below) and a scientific paper, "The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Florida (1622): the Silver Coins" that has been shared with all employees in our laboratory. She has given lectures to guests including INAC and government personnel and has generously shared an educational power point for any students eager to learn about the origins, life, and meaning of these rare historic coins.
This map from Carol Tedesco's educational PowerPoint depicts the routes of the various fleets: South Seas Fleet (to which the San Jose belonged), Manila Fleet, Tierra Firme Fleet and New Spain Fleet.
Conservation Methodologies of the San Jose Project:
Introduction: San Jose Project’s Conservation Laboratory
Over two years ago IMDI had made possible the construction of a job specific conservation laboratory on the island of Contadora in the Republic of Panama. The base structure utilized to create this laboratory was an ex-power station that had been in disuse for many years. This hurdle, coupled with countless others, created an enormous learning curve as well as a colossal amount of ongoing work. The work to design, build, and maintain a fully functioning conservation laboratory officially was under way.
Report written by Professional Peter J. Barile, August 2012 Contadora Island, Panama.
Participants in Environmental assessment & Approval :
Dr. Peter Barile Senior Scientist
Marine Research & Consulting , Inc.
Hector Guzman: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama and U.S.
Authority of the Aquatic Resources (ARAP)
Methods for the removal of chlorides are relatively straightforward and can include galvanic reduction, electrochemical reduction and heat reduction. By far and away the method most used and the one that the San Jose project and indeed all of IMDI’s projects utilized/will utilize was/will be the electrochemical process known as Electrolytic Reduction: In this process a cell is created that has an anode and a cathode these are submerged into a solution that has an electrolyte added and a current is applied. In simple terms ions flow out of the cathode towards the anode. This process creates reduction at the cathode or the negative side of the cell (the opposite side experiences oxidation) this reduction process removes the chloride
contaminants from the structure of the metal.
In the conservation of finds from salt water environments then the artifact becomes the cathode and an appropriate anode (usually stainless steel for its durability) is used. The object is submerged and the chloride level is tested in the cell for a baseline. The process is begun and chloride levels in the solution are monitored over time. When the level of chloride reaches a maximum and no further is being released the electrolyte solution is changed bringing it back to the baseline, this is done periodically over time and when no further release of chlorides is noted into the electrolyte the preservation process is near completion. Dependent on the type of metal it may be left as is (silver) or it may receive protective coatings to prevent further deterioration iron.
This process was utilized for the majority of metallic objects recovered, however there was also specialized treatments used for cupreous metals such as bronze and copper.
Organic material: Organic materials may be encountered in some special circumstances on the San Jose project, they will be few. Usually organic material lasts best in anaerobic environments which is not our site in general however there may have been some special circumstances where this type of material has survived. There can be no prediction given, the environment and historical background of the wreck site as to how much or what the exact composition of these remains/objects may be.
Also, sub director of archaeology for the project, Jim Sinclair MA, has been involved in conservation efforts and had overseen the conservation of collections of materials from over 10 Spanish Colonial Period Shipwrecks, including 500,000 individual items from a major recovery in the 1980’s, allowing us knowledge from true specialists for the San Jose Project.
Cronyn, J. M. 1990. The Elements of Archaeological Conservation. Routledge, London.
Grattan, D. W., ed.1982. Proceedings of the ICOM Waterlogged Wood Working Group Conference.
Waterlogged Wood Working Group, Committee for Conservation, ICOM, Ottowa.
Hamilton, D. L.1975. Conservation of Metal Objects from Underwater Sites: A Study in Methods.
Texas Antiquities Committee Publication No. 1, Austin, Texas.
_____. 1996. Basic Methods of Conserving Underwater Archaeological Material Culture.
US Department of Defense Legacy Resource Management Program, Washington, DC.
ICOM Waterlogged Wood Working Group Conference. 1985. Waterlogged Wood: Study and
Conservation. Proceedings of the 2nd ICOM Waterlogged Wood Working Group Conference,
Pearson, C., ed. 1987. Conservation of Marine Archaeological Objects. Butterworths, London.
Plenderleith, H. J. and A. E. A. Werner. 1977. The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art.
Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Rogers, B. 2004. The archaeologist Manuel for Conservation, a guide to non-toxic minimal intervention artifact stablization. Kluwer Academic /Plenum Publishers, New York, London.
The Significance of Contraband Cargo and Personal Possessions:
While a contraband percentage equaling 10-30% of the total registered cargo appears to be the average on ships of the conquest, there are recorded instances where the recovered contraband has well exceeded the value of the registered cargo. One example is the 1654 Jesus Maria de la Limpia Conceptión. This ship carried a registered 3 million silver pesos while its contraband cargo equaled another 7 million. Registered treasure was the cargo recorded on a shipʼs manifest, for which a 20% tax was documented and paid to the Spanish crown. However, since payment of the tax was unpopular, a tradition of bribery and underreporting of cargo had proven beneficial for shippers and corrupt officials—meaning that smuggling was rampant. Silver and gold were valued strictly by weight and purity, and therefore could be spent in any form. Notably, while bullion was subject to the kingʼs 20% tax, fabricated” silver and gold objects, including personal jewelry was not, a loophole that motivated wealthy subjects of the king to convert their bullion into jewelry—a practice that would explain the astonishingly long and heavy gold chains that have been recovered from so many shipwreck sites around the world. As with gold and silver, rough, uncut gems were subject to the “Kingʼs Fifth” tax, but gemstones set into jewelry were not, so exquisite rings, broaches, necklaces and other such personal possessions would not necessarily appear on a shipʼs register.
The History and Loss of the San Jose:
The San Jose was a ship of the South Seas fleet. When she sank in 1631, her holds were stuffed with almost unimaginable wealth, tons of it, and largely in the form of silver mined from high in the Andes Mountains. In 1545, a mountain of silver ore was discovered in the south central Andes Mountains, still the largest known silver deposit in the world. This mountain came to be known as Cerro Rico de Potosi – the Rich Hill of Potosi. In Potosi, crude silver ore was
processed, cast into
ingots, and struck into
coins. South Seas
fleet ships like the
San José would
collect this treasure at
the port of Callao,
Peru, and transport it
to the Pacific side of
the Isthmus of
Panama. From there it
would be packed
overland to the
Caribbean side, and
here resume its sea
journey on Tierra Firme fleet ships, stopping at Cartagena and Havana before ultimately departing for Europe. The trip from Lima's port of Callao to the Pacific island of Perico off Panama is about 1300 nautical miles, and normally took the galleons about two and a half to three weeks. The 1631 South Seas fleet ships set sail from Callao on 31 May, consisting of the Capitana (flagship) Nuestra Senora de Loreto, the Almiranta (vice-flagship) San José and a patache, (a launch or smaller vessel, often used for communication between ships). According to historic documentation, on 17 June, 1631, at about 9:00 pm, while maneuvering to anchor close to the Capitana for the night, the Almiranta San José struck a shallow rock outcropping - now known as Trollope Rock in the Banco San José - about twelve miles west of Punta Garachine, Panama. Captain General Don Bernadino de Mendoza, who witnessed the event from aboard the Loreto, provided testimony of the incident, and the subsequent rescue of all the people, except for one man—Alonso Palma, the Tithe Keeper—who drowned trying to save a sack of eight reales coins. Excessive full moon tides and currents caused the San José to separate at the bottom deck. The currents then drove the floating upper three decks toward Panama. The Spanish feared the upper decks would drift into the mainland where the bottom is muddy, making salvage almost impossible, so they used two smaller ships to row the decks close to the island of Contadora in the Pearl Islands where the water is clear, a journey of some 40 miles. They arrived on 20 July, 1631. Documents unearthed in the Spanish archives detail reports that the military force guarding the hull at Contadora was under strict orders not to let anyone touch or salvage the treasure within the upper decks until the President of Panama arrived on site. In the meantime, the upper decks began to break apart. Merchant Andres de Avila testified that he received notice in the City of Panama that some coin boxes had been salvaged and were now on shore, so he traveled to Contadora to determine the situation “as regards these things” and to see if any of the recovered coin boxes were his. “Upon arriving at Isla de Contadora I saw that nothing in fact had been salvaged,” he testified. With the anchors dragging and the upper decks breaking apart, ultimately the hands-off orders were amended and a company set out on Tuesday, July 1, 1631, to examine the decks and attempt to salvage the boxes of reales from the compartments in the bow section where they were reported to have been loaded in Callao. “Arriving at the cuarteles this testifier saw that not all the bow castles or bow sprint section were there. The bottom was clear but we saw nothing of the boxes in that place nor at any other place in the vicinity of the hull.” Research indicates that the bulk of the coin boxes that were recovered by the Spanish fell out of the shipʼs third deck shortly after the bottom of the ship separated from the hull—within 200 yards of the shipʼs bottom. The multi-million dollar question is at what point in the 40-mile journey from Trollope Rock to Isla Contadora did the remaining 203 chests fall away from the bow section. Some of the Spanish were of the opinion that the coin boxes were still on board when the upper decks floated past Isla Del Rey, a close neighbor of Isla Contadora (approximately 12 miles distant) because of the depth of water the bow displaced. Extensive archival research, conducted over a span of many years, concludes that as of one year after the sinking of the San José, when salvage efforts were ultimately abandoned, the value of registered treasure still remaining at-large equaled 600,000 pesos. Subsequent archival research to ten years beyond the sinking showed no further salvage efforts by the Spanish.
The San José Cargo
The San José carried 1,600,000 pesos in registered silver, in the form of 1,417 bars of silver, 416 boxes of coins, 76,094 pesos in bags and sacks, and 76,942 pesos in mercury processed virgin silver. But, as is true of every known Spanish Colonial shipwreck that has been matched to surviving historic documents, the cargo of
the San José consisted of both registered and unregistered goods. In fact, following a shipwreck it was common that a mad scramble would ensue in which merchants and passengers would confess those valuables which had not originally been registered. The penalty for non-disclosure of this sort was usually double taxation. However, certain items such as objects of fabricated gold and silver were exempt under the Averia system in Indies trade. One of numerous documented “late registry” examples from the San José:
The Licenciado Don Juan de Octalora of the City of Los Reyes states that because of the quickness with which we departed Callao in the Galleon San Joséf..the following was not registered:
Two large Platters, one Golden the other Silver
Two Small Silver Platters
One Large Golden Salt Cellar, in 3 Pieces
Two Golden Cups
One Large Golden Jar with Paintings
One Small Silver Jar
Two Dozen Ordinary Spoons
Two Soup Ladles
One Golden Tray
Items of silver service, all of which were contained in a wooden box…
One chain of gold which weighed 19 pounds and consisted of five turns to the
One diamond necklace set in gold with smaller diamond garnishes done in gold,
packed in a small box covered with gold leaf
Two finger rings; one with diamonds, the other with emeralds
Two smaller finger rings with rubies
A small sack of reales amounting to 500 pesos for my expenses during the
General Conservation Procedures:
Metals: The Conservation of metallic objects recovered from salt water is based upon the removal of the salts (chlorides) that have impregnated the metallic structure over the period of time it has been submerged. The preservation of surface detail where possible and the inhibition of further corrosion.