In a time when power was demonstrated in the sea, more than 250 years ago, precisely on January 10, 1765, the Spanish merchant frigate Purísima Concepción departed from Cádiz, Spain. Its destination was Lima, for which the ship had to surround the continent by the south end and to raise by the Pacific. After running aground among rocks on the Atlantic coast of Tierra del Fuego, their crew, about 200, left the boat and headed for the coast. All survived and lived for almost three months with indigenous people, among precarious barracks, and with the aim of reaching Buenos Aires, they recovered part of the boat to build another ship.
This story that seems worthy of an eighteenth-century English novel is the one that Dolores Elkin, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought (Inapl), who leads an investigation to find the wreck and the camp where they settled the almost 200 survivors of the tragedy.
Motivated by a story that caught her from the beginning, Elkin reviews the shipwreck: “If one thinks that all the crew survived, that they lived peacefully with the Indians during the almost three months they stayed in Tierra del Fuego, and that they also built a new ship in which they could return to Buenos Aires, it is evident that it is not a shipwreck anymore. It’s a story of those that it’s nice to know, and the intention was to bring it to light through this investigation. ”
Along with Elkin, are part of the research group, Martín Vázquez, archaeologist at the Austral Center for Scientific Research (Cadic), Francisco Zangrando, independent researcher of the Cadic and Ricardo Vera, support staff of the National Center Patagónico (Cenpat), helmsman, skipper of yacht and professional diver, key in the tasks of nautical logistic support and diving during the field work. Other Argentine researchers from INAPL, specialists from England and the United States, and several people who collaborated with the ground logistics support also participated in the project.
To the field work that lasted approximately 10 days is added an investigation for more than two years of historical documents, such as the trip diary of the vessel, and other sources.
Immerse yourself in history
“One usually thinks of shipwrecks but there can be any kind of cultural remains under water. During the fieldwork it was essentially only archeology, with the particularity that it was worked on land and in the water and that unusual search techniques were used in Argentine archeology, “said Elkin, specialist in underwater archeology that is the study of the human past through material remains that are submerged (in any type of water).
For the submarine search a magnetometer was used, which is towed from a boat and allows to detect the presence of ferrous metals with the objective of locating the iron cannons that the Purísima Concepción had on board. This tool is linked to a high GPS precision and a software that allows to process all the magnetic information, always in a georeferenced way.
“The underwater search conducted with remote sensing equipment produced important magnetic anomalies compatible with a set of iron cannons such as those on board the Purísima Concepción. This evidence, added to a series of ceramic fragments, cannonballs and other materials scattered throughout the intertidal zone, indicates what is most likely the place where the wreck occurred, “says Elkin.
Work on land
The excavations on the ground, on the other hand, revealed a set of artifacts that suggest interaction between European individuals and native peoples, in what almost certainly constitutes the place where the shipwrecked camp was established. “I remember a phrase from the travel diary that says that the Indians used to make stone arrowheads and that when the castaways arrived they began to do it with glass,” says Elkin.
After the campaign begins an interdisciplinary work with the conservation areas to stabilize the recovered archaeological materials, and chemistry, to know the composition of some of them. In the laboratory the main thing is conservation, especially with those materials that come from a marine environment since they are especially vulnerable to adaptation to the new environment. In the case of the materials of the Purísima Concepción, this will be done in the Cadic, although some pieces have already been preserved in the Inapl laboratory by the specialist Gabriela Ammirati.
“As for the archaeological work itself, in the laboratory the usual thing is to perform inspections to” naked eye “and with magnifying glass or microscope to determine general characteristics and begin to interpret what they tell us about the people associated with them. For that, spatial information is also processed, that is, where everything was found, associated with what else, etc., “explains Elkin.
How the story continues
Then come a series of more specialized analyzes with certain materials. For the time being, an analysis of the composition of the ceramic is planned to try to corroborate that it was made in Spain, where the Purísima Concepción came from. Metallographic studies will also be done with samples of one of the cannonballs, to try to establish the geographical origin of the mineral used in the smelting. This will be done in the materials laboratory of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Buenos Aires, under the direction of Dr. Horacio De Rosa.
The next investigations that will be carried out by the current team and specialists from Spain will confirm these promising results and project future work stages. The expedition was mainly financed by The National Geographic Society, complemented with support from Argentine government institutions, as well as private sponsors.
“Mainly the biggest challenge in the future is to get enough funds to do a new fieldwork, both in water and on land in the places we have already identified, and that Spanish researchers can participate. The UNESCO convention for the protection of the underwater cultural heritage, of which Argentina and Spain are part states, promotes international cooperation when there is a historic ship wrecked in the waters of a country and whose flag was from another country. The case of the Purísima Concepción is ideal to implement this cooperation, which will be beneficial in every way, “says Elkin.
Underwater archeology is a growing field that is throwing interesting findings: at the beginning of the year, researchers concluded that two caves in Mexico, Sac Actún and Dos Ojos, are connected to each other. Together they form the largest underwater cave in the world: the length of the tunnels is approximately 347 kilometers. The exits of both caves are in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula, near the city of Tulum. In it scientists have recorded more than a hundred artifacts and remains of extinct fauna, ceramics, Mayan tombs and elements of tribal life.