Stories of buried treasure and ancient shipwrecks have captivated for centuries, from pirate tales to Hollywood blockbusters. For one team of explorers, however, legend became reality when they uncovered a trove of artifacts from a 350-year-old sunken Spanish galleon – including coins, gemstones and priceless jewels once belonging to seafaring knights.
The Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas (or Our Lady of Wonders) sank in 1656 after it collided with another boat from its fleet and crashed into a coral reef off the Bahamas. The vessel was carrying a haul of treasure, some of which was reserved as royal tax for King Philip IV, from Cuba to Seville, Spain. The 891-ton ship contained more cargo than usual, as it had also been tasked with transporting treasure retrieved from another ship that had sunk two years earlier.
There have already been several successful attempts to retrieve the ship’s cargo, with almost 3.5 million items recovered between 1650s and 1990s, according to shipwreck specialist Allen Exploration, which carried out a two-year expedition from 2020.
But the latest discoveries, which are going on display this month at the new Bahamas Maritime Museum, offer fresh insight into life aboard the vessel. Working with local divers, archaeologists and other experts, the researchers are also in the process of “reconstructing the mystery of how the ship was wrecked and fell apart,” project marine archaeologist James Sinclair said in a press release.
Using remote-sensing technology, such as sonar and magnetometers, Allen Exploration tracked “a long and winding debris trail of finds” scattered over a 13-kilometer stretch of ocean floor, founder Carl Allen added in a statement.
Among the discoveries was a 1.76-meter-long gold filigree chain and several bejeweled pendants that once belonged to knights of the Order of Santiago, a centuries-old religious and military order. One of the gold pendants features a large oval Colombian emerald and a dozen smaller emeralds, which experts believe may represent the 12 apostles, alongside the Cross of St. James. Three other knightly pendants were also discovered, including one shaped to look like a golden scallop shell.
“When we brought up the oval emerald and gold pendant, my breath caught in my throat,” Allen said, adding: “How these tiny pendants survived in these harsh waters, and how we managed to find them, is the miracle of the Maravillas.”
Other recovered artifacts shine a light on daily life on the Maravillas, which sailed during the “Spainish Golden Age,” including Chinese porcelain and olive jars, as well as a silver sword handle. Some of the galleon’s valuable contents may also have been contraband for the purpose of “illegally greasing the palms of Spanish merchants and officials,” Allen said.
The items discovered by Allen’s team will be permanently housed at the Bahamas Maritime Museum, which opens August 8 in the Caribbean nation’s second-largest city, Freeport.
And Sinclair believes that there may yet be more discoveries to be made.
“The ship may have been obliterated by past salvage and hurricanes … But we’re convinced there are more stories out there,” he said.