National Geographic : 1965 Jan
National Geographic, January, 1965 "I've found the captain's easy chair," said Del Long as he handed up a fuzzy lump. "Here's some of the stuffing!" The "stuffing" we later identified through the good offices of the Smithsonian Institu tion's Chairman of Armed Forces History, Mendel Peterson, as a mixture of cow hair and pitch with which the Spaniards some times coated their wooden hulls to discourage the ever-present teredos. In a basketload of litter sent up from the bottom one day we found a lime-encrusted fist-size lump, which when exposed to a metal detector spoke strangely. The next basket brought up five wedges of blackened silver. Laid in a circle eight inches in diameter, the wedges made a silver "pie" with a gap for the encrusted piece. Three layers of these "pies" would fill a small keg, a 100-pound load for an Indian bearer. Two barrels made a full load for a donkey. Probing under the ballast, we found three more of the silver wedges, but we are still searching for the rest of that barrel of silver. In the process, however, we convinced our selves that we were over the keel of the ship. Our hard-won experience was beginning to teach us something of the process by which a ship decays. Lighter materials had all dis appeared years ago. The superstructure may have survived for no more than a few years, during which Indians, the Spanish, and Eng lish freebooters would have made off with everything worth carrying away. Still, we surmised, much of the cargo would be inaccessible to divers who had to hold their breath. Heavier objects-like the guns - would settle to the bottom practically on the spot. And, since the precious metals are also extremely heavy, we centered our search along the lower area of the ballast heap where the ship's ribs join the keel. Sea Seems to Deliver on Schedule New finds turned up with a regularity that surprised all of us. Once it was a silver cup, and one weekend we uncovered matching silver dishes, a gilded inkwell, and a shaker for blotting sand. On another trip we found a set of bronze weights, all nested together like graduated cups (page 15). In the meantime we continued to find occasional coins-sometimes the small er pieces of four or two reales. To me, some of the most fascinating prizes have been pieces of seaman's equipment of that far-off day. We turned up three pairs of brass navigation dividers, one still in work ing condition, and a 20-pound sounding lead, dated 1712, that is almost an exact counter part of the weights still in use today-a strik ing example of the functionalism of a sailor's tools, as well as the conservatism in the ways of the sea (page 36). Mass of "Rock" Holds a Surprise "I'll need a rope!" Dan Thompson seemed strangely excited. He took a nylon line and went over the side. "Help me pull." He handed up one end of the line and dived again. I assumed we were helping him move some larger ballast stone or piece of debris. We heaved on the line. We could see he was treading water as hard as he could. "Easy... careful!..." he called, but the weight of his burden took him under again. We pulled the line until he was alongside the boat, then released it as we all rushed to the rail. Dan went under again with his arms wrapped around something dark. Many hands seized the line; we heaved together and Dan pushed as we raised a greenish black mass over the rail (page 15). When I tugged at one edge it came away, and silver gleamed from the heart of the dark mass. Here in one clump were more than 50 pounds of silver coins! We expected a few coins, perhaps even a hatful at a time, but this was something out of all proportion. In one brief dive we had more than doubled the value of all our pre vious finds. Before our astonishment could wear off, Dan went down again, taking Harry Cannon with him, and the two brought up another coin clump nearly as big as the first. The outermost layer of these coins is to tally blackened, but by a treatment called electrolytic reduction, a solution of zinc and caustic soda reconverts the corrosion to me tallic silver. Coins in the center of the clumps remain al most untouched. Some are as bright and un damaged as the day they were minted. These angular coins look crude compared to the well-minted coins of other eras. Part of their fascination, however, lies in their ir regularity. No two coins are alike (pages 26-7). Each piece was chiseled from a flat bar of sil ver and then stamped with the royal coat of arms on one side and a cross on the other.