Mexico City. – Part of a shipment of jewels that never reached its destination, dozens of emerald gleams remained camouflaged among the turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean since the 18th century. A reef zone turned into a great cemetery of boats was also the unfortunate destination of a small merchant ship of which nothing remains, except its valuable cargo, a treasure with more than 300 pieces of gold that in a turn of the fortune goddess has become an unprecedented find for underwater archeology in the country.
After three years of this discovery under the shallow waters of the Yucatan coast, the discoverer of this invaluable cargo, Dr. Roberto Junco Sánchez, a researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), does not hesitate to qualify as “serindipia” the meeting of these jewels that, possibly, were destined to curdle the Spanish and Spanish wealthy, that ended up sinking along with the ship that transported them, one of the many fatal victims dragged by the strong currents that covers the Yucatan coast.
He also holds the Sub directorate of Underwater Archeology (SAS) of the INAH, which refers to the discovery of the shipment of jewels – which now constitutes one of the main attractions of the recently inaugurated Museum of Underwater Archeology. Reducto San José El Alto, in the fortified city of Campeche, was accidentally produced in 2014, during a field season of the Integral Project for the Protection, Conservation, Research and Dissemination of the Submerged Cultural Heritage of the Yucatan Peninsula.
That year, a SAS team sought to delimit a nineteenth-century wreck with the help of a portable magnetometer, and it was the signals emitted by this device -a little outside the search area- that indicated the presence of a fragmented anchor, a golden rosary account and dozens of silver coins of a temporality previous to the remains of the ship that was originally tracked.
Under the crystal clear waters, Roberto Junco did not find it difficult to recognize that the mentioned coins are of the so-called “macuquinas”, because on the back it presents a cross and another more than a quarter on the reverse, it is completed with two castles and two lions. In a game of words that gathers the first elements that he observed, the archaeologist named the ship as “Anchor Macuca”, although it should be noted that little or nothing (except a lead scandal) has been found from the boat due to the shallow depth of the Shipwreck, which varies between 2 and 5 meters.
After setting the characteristics of the site in a plan, with an idea of the location and the dimensions of the remains to integrate them into the inventory, the SAS team waited a year to make a season of field in shape. When returning in August 2015 to this “giant pool”, between coral massifs and shoals, the SAS team began to find a treasure scattered on the cliffs that lie at the bottom of the sea.
“On the second day of the season, emeralds began to appear, some loose and others set in rings and other types of jewelry; toothpicks, rosaries, cufflinks, reliquaries, a whole series of jewellery elements that allowed us to venture that they were part of a single cargo that should have been contained in a chest, and that is likely to be traded in Spain. These materials were dispersed in an approximate area of 10 square meters, “says the sub director of Underwater Archeology at INAH.
In short: three field seasons, each lasting one week, 100 hours of accumulated work. While two specialists of the SAS extended the map of the site “Anchor Macuca” – of which six iron cannons of different caliber have also been located -, three others carried out the excavations.
The report found the discovery of 321 gold pieces, among which 83 rings, a pair of buckles, 15 toothpicks, a dozen gold rings with emeralds, rose coral and amethyst; three buttons, six charms; 141 rosary beads, 11 incomplete rosaries; three brooches with emeralds, nine medals, seven crosses, two crosses with emeralds, five oval locket medallions, three cufflinks, two flowers, four circular reliquary medallions; In addition to fragments of bracelets, rosaries, chains, rings, appliques and intermediate elements.
In total 74 embedded emeralds were recovered, for example a small dragon figure with 14 emeralds and two diamonds stands out, and other dragonlets with four emeralds in eyes and on the back each; in addition to three loose emeralds of large size and a small one.
A meticulous record in drawings and photographs of the smallest piece is what today allows the national and foreign public to admire this jewelry in the Museum of Underwater Archeology. Reducto San José El Alto, in Campeche, where it is housed in high-tech cabinets and 24 surveillance cameras were placed in the exhibition space.
Beyond the economic value of the cargo, for the sub director of Underwater Archeology of INAH, Roberto Junco, the main interest is the information that these materials have provided on certain aspects of the Hispanic society of the XVIII century, among them, the intense commercial activity that it was among the viceroyalties of the Spanish Crown.
According to the gemological report of five pieces recovered from the “Macuca Anchor”, which was made at the Geosciences Institute of the Complutense University of Madrid, these correspond to emeralds brought from the territories of New Granada, now Colombia. A documentary study in colonial sources reveals that part of the jewelry in gold, which includes the techniques of casting, molding and carving, could have been carried out in the old Antiquary, in the current state of Oaxaca.
With this data – although the cabinet investigations will continue, as well as on the site – the archaeologist proposes that once the cargo was full, the merchants had to sail from Veracruz towards Havana, which was the destination port before undertaking the long trip to Spain. It was on the way between the two points that the strong currents made the small boat run aground.
“The set of these gems refers that they were destined to a high class, which was the one that could acquire them and show them off. Thus, we have artifacts for dental cleaning, like this important collection of toothpicks; but also tells us about the value of religious rites through the number of rosaries, crosses and reliquaries. Rings with decorations of flourishes and hearts also reveal aspects of courtship; while the brooches and buckles, for example, indicate the eighteenth-century label.
“The significance of this discovery was given by underwater archaeologists, and not by treasure hunters, is that they were not auctioned off to the highest bidder, but are now shared to link today’s society with the New Spain. Each piece of this cargo of jewels, which saw its destiny truncated, tells us a small part of the society in which they were produced. After all, the submerged cultural heritage is of the whole world, “says Roberto Junco.
An unprecedented find
The discovery of the cargo of jewels of the “Macuca Anchor” represents the first time that this type of material is located by professionals of underwater archeology in Mexico.
Forty years ago, fisherman Raúl Hurtado Hernández found gold bars and pre-Hispanic jewelry that had been hidden for more than 400 years in a Spanish galleon. The so-called “Fisherman’s Jewels” are exhibited in the Baluarte de Santiago, in the port of Veracruz.
Special mention deserves the pillage of the treasure of the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza. Between 1904 and 1907, Edward Thompson devoted himself to systematically dredging the Sacred Cenote, finding ceramic objects, pieces of jade, obsidian, rock crystal, snail and shell; limestone, flint, wood, tumbaga, gold and textiles, which had originally been offered to this space. In 1909, Thompson changed techniques and used diving to rescue objects from the cenote; that same year he concluded his work in the Mayan city.