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One of the pieces of jewelry found on the sea floor off the Yucatán peninsula. One of the pieces of jewelry found on the sea floor off the Yucatán peninsula. javier hinojosa

Spanish treasure now on shelves of museum

Gold pieces, encrusted emeralds were discovered off Yucatán coast

A shipment of Spanish treasure lost at sea after a shipwreck off the Yucatán coast in the 18th century is now part of a museum display.

More than 300 gold pieces — including rings, buckles, crosses, brooches, cufflinks, bracelets, rosaries and toothpicks — as well as 74 encrusted emeralds among other items were discovered three years ago submerged on and near a shallow reef.

According to Roberto Junco Sánchez, a researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the leader of the team that made the serendipitous discovery, the jewels were likely destined for sale among the Spanish upper classes.

In an INAH bulletin, Junco explained that the uncovering of the treasure was purely accidental.

In 2014, a subaquatic archaeology team was mapping the site of a 19th-century shipwreck using a portable magnetometer when it received a signal from just outside the area it was surveying.

The signals led the team to a broken anchor, a golden rosary bead and dozens of silver coins.

Junco quickly recognized that the coins were macuquinas, or hammered coins, a form of ancient coinage that was produced up until the 17th century.

During 2014, the team didn’t make any further discoveries but carefully noted the characteristics and location of the new site.

It was during a return visit in August 2015 that the team made a much larger discovery, uncovering hundreds of gems and jewels that were dispersed among coral and schools of fish, both on the floor of the sea and amid the reef.

“On the second day . . . emeralds — some of them loose and others set in rings — and other kinds of jewels began to appear,” Junco said, adding that all of the riches were found in an area of around 10 square meters.

All told, the team spent three week-long periods surveying the site during which they found not only all the jewels, including diamond and emerald-encrusted dragon figurines, but also six iron cannons.

However, no remnants of the ship itself — which Junco dubbed Ancla Macuca, in reference to the initial discovery of the anchor and coins — were found.

Beyond the economic value of the treasure, Junco said the jewels also provide priceless insight into aspects of 18th-century Spanish society, including the frenetic trade between Spain and its colonies and the important role of religion.

At the time of the shipwreck, modern-day Mexico was still known as the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

But according to an analysis of five pieces conducted by geologists at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain, the origin of the emeralds was the Viceroyalty of Granada, where today the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador are located.

However, at least some of the gold is believed to have come from a region that is now the state of Oaxaca.

The discovery of the jewels, now on display at the new National Museum of Subaquatic Archaeology in Campeche, represents the first time that such valuable artifacts have been found by subaquatic archaeologists in Mexico.

However, 40 years ago a fisherman found ingots of gold and pre-Hispanic jewelry at sea that had been lost on a Spanish galleon more than 400 years ago.

The so-called “fisherman’s jewels” are on display at the Bastion of Santiago in Veracruz.

Mexico News Daily

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Photos by Roberto Junco and Javier Hinojosa.

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