"Tortugas" Artifacts and Treasures
The 1990-1991 "Tortugas" excavation seasons produced nearly 17,000 artifacts, which, combined with extensive research, suggests the remains of a 17th-century vessel—likely the Portuguese-built and Spanish-operated 117-ton Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario that sailed with the 1622 Tierra Firme Spanish treasure fleet. Located at a depth of over 1,300 feet (405 meters), the "Tortugas" project was historically the world's first comprehensive excavation of a deep-sea shipwreck conducted using exclusively robotic and computer technology. The project was directed by an archaeologist and crew aboard a recovery vessel hundreds of feet above the shipwreck site.
The artifact assemblage recovered from the "Tortugas" wreck contains a diversity of 17th-century items indicative of Spanish colonial trade with the Americas towards the end of Spain’s golden age early in the reign of King Philip IV. Included in the assemblage are navigational objects, as well as a diversity of articles essential for everyday use aboard the vessel combined with a wealth of precious treasure reaped from Spain’s New World colonies. Importantly, many of the artifacts retrieved from the site—gold bars, silver coins, bronze implements, ceramics, and pearls—help confirm the ship’s Spanish colonial origins and its 1622 wreck date. Conservation and analysis of the artifact collection continues today in Odyssey Marine Exploration's land-based conservation facility.
Saltwater is a hostile environment for most metals. Yet despite centuries underwater, the "Tortugas" shipwreck yielded some extraordinary metal artifacts including a bronze bell, the first object recovered from the site and the artifact that Odyssey used to file an admiralty claim for ownership of the wreck. The bell is heavily patinated and degraded; a gaping hole is present on one side. No decorative symbols or inscriptions are apparent. The shoulder is surmounted by a single suspension canon ring subdivided into three spaces suitable for lifting with a single hand. Ship’s bells were utilized mainly to identify the passage of time during the day, marking the half hours, changes of watch and time for prayers and dinner. The sounding of the bell also warned of danger, fire, fog or an enemy ship. The “Tortugas” bell would almost certainly have been the last sound that rang out wildly as the ship sank in the hurricane of September 5, 1622.
Gold was the most desired product of the New World. Native Americans enslaved by the Spanish in Central and South America mined the gold, melted it and cast it into bars for easy shipment back to Spain. The "Tortugas" shipwreck site yielded twenty-seven gold bars in varying states of completeness, with distinctive markings impressed on the surface. A semi-circular line and dot stamp confirmed payment of the 20% royal quinto tax (the Spanish "royal fifith" tax, i.e. the tax levied by the Spanish crown on mineral products) while the purity of the gold was a marked in Roman numerals (such as XXI for 21 karat purity) set in rectangular frames; above appeared solid dots enclosed by smaller rectangular frames denoting fractional values (one dot for one-quarter karat, two dots for a half, etc.).
Other markings on the bars represent the stamp of the New World foundries where the bars originated. The word ‘EN RADA’ appears with several co-joined letters (P and L, A and E, and R and A and N). Other stamps read ‘SARGOSA PECARTA’ and ‘SEBATN ESPANOL’. These stamps represent abbreviated names of the foundries of the Colombia mines where this colonial gold was extracted and cast. The ‘SARGOSA PECARTA’ gold bars derived from Zaragoza, which started operations in 1582, while ‘SEBATN ESPANOL’ signifies extraction at the seemingly small San Sebastian mines of Timaná. The ‘EN RADA’ gold is an abbreviation of ‘Peñarenda’, a wealthy family that owned gold mine concessions in various parts of the New World, including seemingly Colombia and Mexico.
These well-defined markings are the same as those stamped on the gold bars recovered from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, one of the 1622 Tierra Firme treasure ships lost in the same fleet disaster. These common markings help confirm the date and the Spanish colonial identity of the "Tortugas" wreck site.
The "Tortugas" artifact assemblage includes three rare bronze astrolabes, two of which were recovered from the stern half of the ship near the pump well, and the third from the southern extremity of the site. The mariner’s astrolabe was developed for shipboard use by the Portuguese at the School of Prince Henry the Navigator at Sagres in the mid-15th century. The earliest recorded use of a sea astrolabe was by the Portuguese Diogo d’Azambuja in 1481 on a voyage down the west coast of Africa. Early astrolabes were large wooden instruments suspended from a frame. Smaller brass instruments such as the “Tortugas” examples replaced the earlier wooden variety in the 16th century to become essential parts of navigational assemblages.
The forerunner of the sextant, the astrolabe was widely used by sailors in the 16th and 17th centuries as a navigational device to measure the angle of a celestial body in the sky and hence to determine latitude in conjunction with declination charts and tables. With solar tables and an accurate instrument with which to measure the height of the sun at meridian passage, latitude could be computed without reliance on viewing the Pole Star. Suspended by a ring from the thumb, the instrument was held at arms’ length, and the center alidade rotated so the sun or a specific star could be sighted through a hole in the vertical plates. The altitude of the object was read by noting the number to which the alidade pointed on a scale of degrees engraved around the perimeter of the device. A book of tables was then consulted to interpret the reading and estimate latitude.
Mariner's Astrolabes went out of use after the mid-17th century, and finds of subsequent date are rare. Some 81 examples are currently known to exist.
Mortar & Pestle Sets
An intriguing collection of artifacts excavated from the “Tortugas” shipwreck contribute to our understanding of shipboard life in the waning years of the golden age of Spanish colonial seafaring. Two similar sets of bronze mortars and pestles located 1.4m apart just beyond the hull in the starboard stern are of a familiar form used on vessels of multiple nationalities. The mortars are mold decorated externally with what resemble human faces or zoomorphic figures.
Such mortars were manufactured with little stylistic change between c. 1600 and the mid-18th century. Amongst the many examples recovered from 17th-century shipwrecks is the mortar and pestle set with similar design recovered from the 1622 Atocha. While these utensils are commonly interpreted as surgeon’s mortars, in the case of the 1622 Tierra Firme fleet, it is more likely the mortars were utilized for food preparation.
Spanish Olive Jars (Botijas)
The excavation of the “Tortugas” shipwreck yielded 86 intact olive jars (Botijas) plus 123 individual rims and 3,503 sherds. The ship was thus transporting a minimum of 209 olive jars that were relatively evenly distributed across the site. The descriptive term ‘olive jar’ is a misnomer because these vessels were packaged with a wide variety of liquid and solid foodstuffs, however, ‘olive jar’ has become a generic name for this ceramic form today.
The majority of the "Tortugas" olive jars adhere to the generic Middle Style A form while the collection also includes seven small globular jars defined as Middle Style B form, as well as two small carrot-shaped jars classified as Middle Style C. Two intact flat-bottomed large vessels are also represented within the assemblage.
Graffito incisions present on either the shoulder or rim of some jars appear to have been made, with one exception, prior to firing. One example is incised with a Jerusalem cross on the shoulder, while another displays a post-firing pecked design on the shoulder. Motifs were impressed into the wet clay on the mouths of some jars. Several are identical to marks present amongst the Atocha olive jar assemblage. Small parallel cuts on and near the rims may be the result of vessel reuse or less probably rodent gnawing.
The volume of botijas on the “Tortugas” wreck is relatively limited and suggests the jars did not serve as cargo. Rather, colonial Spain pursued a policy of stocking all ships with sufficient supplies for entire journeys to the Americas and home. Eight months of food and four months of water were loaded in Seville. Ships often returned with surplus foods, although stocks were commonly replenished at Havana. Botijas of all sizes were used for storing a multitude of foodstuffs: wine, oil, vinegar, honey, as well as solids such as rice, almonds, hazelnuts, raisins, capers and olives. Although recovered from the ROV’s SeRF system, and not from jar interiors, it is likely that many of the seeds and pits from almonds, plums, peaches, olives, hazelnut and grape from the "Tortugas" shipwreck were originally botija contents.
The interior lining of a few olive jar sherds was coated with a chalky red stain, which has been interpreted by visual observation alone possibly as red ocher, a product listed amongst ships provisions for carpenters. Alternatively, it may constitute cochineal listed as cargo on ships returning to Europe from the Indies.
During the ship’s descent onto the seafloor, or soon after deposition, the pressure exerted on the olive jars forced their cork seals to implode inwards: 72 intact and fragmentary cork stoppers were found inside some vessels. Resin was detected within some jar interiors demonstrating sealant by coating the edges of conical shaped corks with pitch.
Religious artifacts are not well represented on the "Tortugas" wreck, and with the exception to probable rosary beads are limited to an individual and highly degraded brass rosary pendant. One side of the pendant depicts the Virgin Mary holding Jesus and attended by a second female; the reverse presents another religious figure presumably identified by the overlying inscription, partly legible as ‘SANTA CATERI--- and ROMA’, holding an unidentifiable object with a sword to her right.
Such pendants made from cupreous or precious metal and featuring saintly imagery are extremely common on shipwrecks across the Spanish colonial period. Amongst numerous comparable examples is the medallion crafted of gold found on the Atocha (and hanging from a rosary comprised of carved ebony beads). Additionally, bronze oval-shaped equivalents depicting the Immaculate Conception scene went down off the Philippines in 1600 on the Spanish merchant vessel San Diego. The “Tortugas” pendant likely represents the personal belonging of one of the ship’s non-ecclesiastical passengers or crew. The reference to Rome suggests the owner may have coveted this souvenir as produced in the capital city of the Catholic Church.
Authentic replicas of this distinctive medallion have been reproduced as gold jewelry.
A total of 6,838 pearls scattered across the site were recovered from the "Tortugas" wreck through the use of the project’s SeRF sieve system. When recovered from the dredged sediments, many of the pearls were a dark gun-metal gray color, but after conservation reverted to a range of colors and lustrous finishes. The shapes of the pearls include round, pear, egg, drop, button, baroque and blister as defined by the Gemological Institute of America, and vary in color from white to cream, rose, pink, silver, yellow, blue and black. Some 636 of the pearls are drilled with holes, likely intended for use as beads perhaps strung or possibly sewn onto clothing. From a sample of 6,494 well-preserved pearls, the sizes range from 1-10mm.
Pearls were the earliest source of wealth imported by colonial Spain from the Americas, and their discovery on the “Tortugas” wreck site confirms the ship made stops in Venezuela; the islands of Coche, Cubagua and Margarita off the eastern coast of Venezuela and mainland Cumana were the source of Spain’s richest pearl beds throughout the 16th and 17th-century colonial exploitation of the Americas.
Although Columbus was the first European to realize the economic potential of Cubagua during his third voyage of 1498, when he bartered hawk bells, beads and sugar with the Arawaks of eastern Venezuela’s Paria Peninsula for more than six marks (about 1.4kg) of pearls, he never physically found the fabled source of this wealth.
While the heyday of pearl exploitation had long ceased by 1622, the Venezuelan oyster beds were still visited in hope and with some success in the first quarter of the 17th century. Three ships from the 1622 Tierra Firme fleet visited these waters: the 115-ton Santa Ana sailed for Margarita Island, the 110-ton San Francisco for Cumana, while the 117-ton Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario headed to Nueva Cordoba, the antiquated name for Cumana. The destination of two additional Tierra Firme vessels, the 100-ton Nuestra Señora del Rosario and the 180-ton Nuestra Señora de los Reyes, is listed generally as ‘Venezuela.’
Some of the “Tortugas” pearls have been mounted in 14K gold "olive jar" shaped pendants.
The assemblage of 1,184 silver cob coins in various degrees of degradation found at the "Tortugas" wreck site contains no coins dated later than 1622. They are all of a type known as “cob” coins, a name derived from the Spanish phrase, "cabo de barra" meaning “end of the bar.” In the usual production process of cob coins, silver with the requisite 92% to 98% pure silver, was hammered into crude bars with slight variance in thickness. Pieces of the bar were then cut to approximate size, weighed and the edges clipped until the blanks fell within specific weight requirements. These planchets were then reheated, placed between dies and struck to imprint the crowned Shield of the House of Hapsburg on the obverse, and on the reverse, a cross with Lions of Lion and Castles of Castile. Coins produced in the South American mints at Potosi, LaPlata, Lima, Bogota and Cartagena featured a Greek cross. Issues from the Mexico mint held the Florenzada cross. The resultant image was frequently off center, and because both sides were imprinted simultaneously the image is often more pronounced on one side. Since the thickness of the coin also varied, the strike may be clearer from one point to another over the surface. Cob coins in effect, were never round or even, and due to the production process were each unique in shape and size.
Authentic replicas of the "Tortugas" cobs have been crafted into sterling silver and 14K gold jewelry.