Treasure hunters dream of finding one of the many piles of hidden riches buried around the world. The notion of finding millions of dollars worth of gold at sea has been a popular one for centuries due to the number of missing ships carrying loot during the Age of Exploration. This dream became a reality in 2008 when a group of miners found approximately £9 million worth of gold coins on a vessel that was lost at sea in 1533.
The Recovery of the Bom Jesus
Back in 1908, a German prospector found a diamond in the Namibian Desert. This discovery launched a century-long operation to find more precious stones in an area known as Sperrgebiet, also called ‘forbidden territory.’ Would-be diamond hunters took over an area of approximately 10,000 square miles, and even today, the Namibian government runs a joint operation with DeBeers in the region.
In 2008, a miner working for DeBeers was conducting his usual search for diamonds when he came across gold. Further excavation revealed metal, wood, and pipes, a discovery that perplexed the miners to the point where they called in an archaeologist. Dieter Noli was one of the experts called to the scene, and he described it as a “disturbed beach” with “bits and pieces.” He quickly uncovered elephant tusks and a 500-year old musket and immediately knew it was a shipwreck.
Buoyed by their findings, archaeologists went to work and uncovered 44,000 pounds of copper ingots, weaponry such as cannon balls, bronze cannons & armor, ivory tusks, pewter bowls and around 2,000 gold coins worth over £9 million. The gold coins were predominantly Spanish excelentes although archaeologists also found Venetian, French and Moorish coinage among others.
Scratching the Surface
As well as being the richest shipwreck ever found in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, it is also the oldest. Archaeologists have all but confirmed that the wreckage is that of the Bom Jesus, a ship that set sail from Lisbon in 1533 only to disappear somewhere near Oranjemund, a Namibian mining town, en-route to India.
It took six days of digging to uncover the wreck, but archaeologists believe they have only scratched the surface of their discovery. According to Portuguese archaeologist, Francisco Alves, it is a “priceless opportunity” to learn more about ships of the age and perhaps more importantly, what everyday life was like back in the Age of Exploration. The Bom Jesus is only the second intact ship of its kind excavated by archaeologists as all the rest were plundered.
The location of the ship in the ‘forbidden zone’ means it was never likely to be a target for treasure hunters. Officials of DeBeers and the Namibian government, who work together on a project called Namdeb, temporarily suspended operations at the site until a team of archaeologists it called in were satisfied that they found what they wanted.
According to Filipe Vieira de Castro of Texas A&M University, there is so much that is unknown about the wreck. It could take years for scholars to study the Bom Jesus, also known as the Diamond Shipwreck. De Castro said the ship would help archaeologists learn more about rigging, hull design, how the ships evolved and life on board one of these vessels.
Timothy Insoll of Manchester University points out that historical sources are limited when it comes to providing details of everyday life for sailors on board these ships. The bones found on board the Bom Jesus can provide investigators with an idea of the typical diet of a sailor for example. It is an extraordinary discovery because a lot of items survived when they really shouldn’t have.
Marine archaeologist Bruno Werz says the ship’s wooden remains should have been eaten by organisms, but the poison from the copper ingots would have protected part of the materials. It will take a long time to study the shipwreck fully, but another question remains unanswered: Why did the Bom Jesus sink in the first place?