Book Review: ‘Oceans Odyssey III, The Deep-Seas Tortugas Shipwreck’

January 9, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2016

Greg Stemm is co-founder and CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration. Greg and his team have brought maritime archaeology to new depths. Literally. Never before could scientists conceive of finding, exploring, photographing and recovering artifacts from ships that wrecked miles beneath the ocean surface. Nations whose defenses depended on deep-sea submarine penetration located shipwrecks like the Titanic but left their ‘discovery’ to others. In fact the U.S. Navy’s Project Hebble mapped the North Atlantic in minute detail for nuclear submarine warfare.

What is remarkable is that private funding was used to muster the resources that enabled deep-sea exploration. It is no small undertaking to build undersea robotic platforms from which cameras and working arms can be extended for research and recovery of artifacts. The support vessel itself is a major expense and the crew of specialists, highly trained and highly paid experts, creates a major payroll. On shore proper preservation and conservation laboratories must be established to handle recovered items. Teams of conservators and archaeologists have to be hired to support the work at sea.

Odyssey Marine Exploration, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, assumed responsibility for world leadership in deep-sea exploration, state of the art underwater archaeology, conservation and dissemination of knowledge gained from their projects. That vessels lost in the deep oceans contain valuable cargoes is secondary to the vast stores of knowledge Greg Stemm and his team bring to the surface and share with the world.

Of course in any successful undertaking there is jealousy. We live in a world of arm chair experts. Everyone is determined to tell the President of the United States how to do his job. A professor in an ivory tower that has never had the means to own a company or run a business demands, doesn’t ask, demands that a cockamamie economic policy be adopted. World economic policies are dictated not by people that are successful, who run industry and businesses in a competitive world, rather by legions of reformers that insist that their ideas are politically correct.

No wonder Greg Stemm’s eleven page preface to OCEANS ODYSSEY III THE DEEP-SEA TORTUGAS SHIPWRECK, STRAITS OF FLORIDA: A MERCHANT VESSEL FROM SPAIN’S TIERRA FIRME FLEET, is replete with documented evidence illustrating the fact that academics that have undertaken undersea excavations of shipwrecks rarely properly publish their findings. He describes missing documents, destruction of sites, failure to release data and absence of publication. Stemm contrasts this with privately funded projects akin to Mel Fisher’s Historical Society and its allied organizations and individuals that have not only published but that have made contributions to the knowledge of maritime history. This includes shipwrecks that have no significant treasure value like the Henrietta Marie. The Henrietta Marie was a slave ship found by Mel Fisher’s divers in 1972 ancillary to their search for the Atocha and Santa Margarita. The recovery focused attention on the ship that sank in 1700 during the age of traffic in human beings for bondage.

This is Odyssey Marine’s third book that details shipwreck discovery, archaeology, recovery and preservation. More than the how of it, there are intense expert studies about the site, the ship itself and its wrecking. The book details artifacts discovered and praecipe even about 165 animal bones found in the wreckage as well as coins the salvors brought up.

The ship is identified as the BUEN JESUS y NUESTRA SENORA del ROSARIO. It was sunk in the same hurricane that wrecked the Atocha and Santa Margarita in 1622. The two fabled galleons were found and excavated by Mel Fisher and his team of divers in an area about 40 miles south of Key West, Florida called the Quicksands. In 1989 a previous deep-sea exploration company, Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology, formed by Greg Stemm and his associates, discovered the remains of the Buen Jesús The wreck was in 400 meters of water located about 20 kilometers south of the Dry Tortugas.

“Between June 1990 and October 1991, 16,903 artifacts were recorded and recovered after a total dive time of 1,489 hours. The post-excavation history of the Tortugas wreck has taken many twists and turns. Today the surviving archive collection is stored and curated by Odyssey Marine Exploration. The current publication appears courtesy of the company’s investment and commitment to scientific publication,” the Introduction to the new book relates.

In chapter 5 of the book Philip L. Armitage, Curator of Brixham’s Heritage Museum in Britain, has made an analysis of the 165 animal bones recovered from the Rosario. Zooarchaeological procedures were used of taxa and anatomy. The author of the dissertation that is Chapter 5 of the book has a modern comparative osteological collection. Armitage worked closely with other experts and museums specializing in bones. “…pig bones predominated over cattle and sheep/goat. The crew also ate chicken and possibly turkey. Other faunal remains introduce further color into our image of daily life at sea. Rats were a significant presence and nuisance on the ship, running wild beneath the feet of the ship’s cat and a caged blue-headed parrot. The latter is the first archaeological evidence from any shipwreck worldwide of the historically attested shipment of high-status rare birds to Spain from central and northern South America.”

Chapter 6 analyses some of the 1,184 silver coins excavated from the Rosario. Carol Tedesco, attached to Historical Research and Certification, Inc., re-examined 648 coins that had been retained in Odyssey Marine’s collection in 2011. She found coins from mints in Mexico, Potosi and Bogota. Of the importance of these coins, as opposed to the treasure laden wrecks of the Atocha and Santa Margarita, Tedesco says “The Tortugas wreck thus reflects the smaller scale maritime trade conducted between Colonial Spain and the Americas that is less conspicuous within the archaeological record.”

If the new book only held Tedesco’s section about what a Spanish dollar would buy, then it would provide a most valuable reference tool. Tedesco writes, “While it has been widely quoted that a common worker would need to labor a month to earn one or two Spanish dollars (also called pesos and ‘pieces of eight’), each consisting of 8 reales of silver, just like today the value of money fluctuated as a result of inflation, recession and geography.” Tedesco describes in Columbus’ time the richest Spaniard gathered 80,000 pesos a year from his estates while a laborer made 25 pesos annually. Tedesco found that, “In 1622, the year of the Tortugas shipwreck sinking, and in 1623, a master carpenter could make 238 maravedis a day (34 maravedis = 1 reale), a master mason 272 maravedis, a laborer 136 maravedis, a gardner 25 maravedis and a female cook 11 maravedis a day.”

Odyssey’s new book is a marvel of production. It is large format 8″ x 11″, hard cover, illustrated with color photographs, maps, charts and diagrams. The 190-page book’s ISBN number is 978-1-78297-148-1. It is available from David Brown Book Co., telephone 860 945 9329 or via the Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK website at www,oxbowbooks.com. Odyssey Marine Exploration’s website is www.shipwreck.net.

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