Treasure hunters eye underwater cultural heritage in Mexico

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mexico City, Feb 3 (IANS/EFE) Hundreds of sunken boats and thousands of other items lying hidden in the ocean, rivers, lakes, and cave pools, which make up part of Mexico’s cultural heritage each year, are the much-desired booty of marine treasure hunters.

According to Pilar Luna, a pioneer of marine archaeology in Mexico, there are up to 250 sunken boats registered in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. But it is estimated that there are thousands of vessels, both large and small, that sank off the country’s coasts.

In addition, some 30 areas of items have been tallied in cenotes and sunken caves, where ancient civilizations like the Maya deposited bodies, personal objects, and food in conducting their spiritual rituals.

The treasures of Mexico are exposed to looting by adventurers who erase the traces of the country’s forebears, said Pilar Luna, an expert with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), who has devoted over 30 years of work to the investigation and preservation of underwater cultural heritage.

The boats that sank in Mexico belonged to the series of fleets that, starting in the 16th century, were used by the colonisers to transport people and merchandise from the New World to Spain.

These vessels were mainly loaded with cargos of gold, silver, and precious stones that the colonies sent to Madrid as a tribute to offset the expenses of the Spanish monarchy.

“The interests have not changed. It continues to be the precious metals that are pursued by treasure hunters at any cost and by those who forget that, beyond their economic value, it is history and culture,” Luna said.

Since 1970s, INAH has declined over 30 requests to do salvage work on sunken vessels that have been found in Mexican waters.

One of those requests came from Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., which became famous in 2007 after salvaging $500 million in gold and silver coins from the wreck of a Spanish ship that sank in an 1804 battle off the coast of Portugal, though US courts must still decide whether the treasure rightfully belongs to the firm or to the Spanish government.

In Mexico, Odyssey intended to explore the Nuestra Seora del Juncal, a galleon that sank in 1631 in the Bay of Campeche while en route to Spain as part of a fleet comprising 18 other vessels.

The Juncal is one of the vessels most sought after by underwater salvage firms because it is the first in the country for which it is known for certain that there is a cargo of treasure within the wreck.

According to the magazine Arqueologia Mexicana, that fleet set sail from the Port of San Juan de Ulua, in Veracruz, bearing a cargo of silver, silk, leather, precious woods and chocolate.

Fortunately, Luna said, it is getting more and more difficult for “marine adventurers” to be successful thanks to treaties such as the 2001 U.N. Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The lack of economic resources and the unawareness of tourists who destroy and steal part of the artifacts are another threat to the conservation of Mexico’s submerged cultural wealth, Luna said.


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