|It was near freezing in the boat, and no better in the water. Ron Howell, complete with measuring tape and clipboard, sank reluctantly down the shotline into the 20m-deep gloom around the four cannon.|
Only at his third attempt did he succeed in tying the measuring tape firmly to the cascabel of one of the cannon. The struggle had let water into his mask. As he tilted his head back to clear it and vision returned, something glittered close to him in the wall of the gully.
His forefinger probed into a crack. A moment later, and he was staring at a gleaming gold coin. Small, but definitely gold!
Then, as he looked closely at the rocks around him, he saw another golden spot. And another.
When his air ran out and he made a near-free ascent back to the RIB, which was bucking in the swell over the cannon, Ron had four coins so tightly gripped in one hand that their imprint was not to fade from his flesh for some time!
He managed to get aboard without opening his clenched fist. When he did, a boatload of divers of the South-West Maritime Archaeological Group, who had earlier been extremely reluctant to dive, all seemed to leave the boat in five seconds flat! However, this severe attack of gold fever was soon over. By the next dive, archaeological discipline had been restored!
Those four coins were the start of a huge treasure find, the first of more than 550 gold coins, gold jewellery and little gold ingots to be raised from a wreck near Salcombe, South Devon. Today they are valued by experts at over500,000.
They were not easily raised. It took three years, 3800 dives and almost as many hours underwaterfor the divers to tease the coins from the cracks in the rocks or to fan the sand off more gold on the floor of the gullies. It was always cold work, and often so dark that the divers had to use torches.
But it was diving time well spent, because British Museum coin experts say this is the finest assemblage of such gold coins ever found in Europe.
First dives to survey the cannon site were made by Mick Palmer of Northampton, local archaeologist-divers Neville Oldham and Stephen George, and Staffordshire divers Mike Williams and his wife Julie.
They soon found that there were few obvious signs of a wreck, apart from more iron cannon spread out in other shallow gullies. There are 11 heavily encrusted cannon in all. Most of the guns are seven-footers, with the longest 8ft 6in. Two are small swivel guns. Two ancient anchors lie nearby.
Many of the team who worked the Salcombe cannon site had earlier been fully occupied further to the west on a sensational discovery in the mouth of the River Erme - the wreck of a Bronze Age ship and her cargo of crudely shaped ingots of pure tin.
Their archaeological survey of the site won them the respect of the nautical archaeological world, and the Duke of Edinburghs Gold Medal.
What little diving time they had to spare was spent on a survey of another famous West Country shipwreck - that of the Gossamer, a fully rigged China tea-clipper wrecked in a gale in December 1868 near Prawle Point.
The only time these archaeological divers would move away from these important sites was when they were blown off by south-easterly winds. Then they would head for the cannon site and work on the pre-disturbance survey. It was on one such blown-off day that they made the first gold strike.
The South-West Maritime Archaeological Group has as its diving advisers Mike Kingston and Mick Kightley, of Northampton, and Neville Oldham, of Stoke Fleming, all members of the tin ingot wreck team.
The Salcombe cannon group members are Mick Palmer, Andy Elliott, Dave Dunkley and Mike Evans of Northampton; Jim Tyson of Market Harborough; Richard Boon, now in South Africa; Stephen George, Ron Howell and Dave Illingworth of South Devon; and Mike Williams of Staffordshire.
Nine of the 13 are members of Northampton BSAC, Branch 13 . Who said the number was unlucky
The group is committed to an arduous pattern of diving on the Salcombe site. Those members who come from the Northampton area tow their RIBs to Devon on a Friday night and stay on a farm near Salcombe, from where they launch into the estuary.
Saturday and Sunday are devoted to diving, three dives a day each. The first dive takes an hour with decompression, followed by two hours in the boat, then another hours diving, then two more hours in the boat before the third and last dive of the day - another hour.
After the last dive on Sunday, the boats go back on to the trailers and the four-hour tow home begins. This pattern is repeated every weekend the weather allows - rain or shine.
All this diving has produced other artifacts as well as more coins, jewellery and ingots - short pewter spoons from Elizabethan times; an unusual sounding lead in the shape of a fish; a roll of lead; a Bellarmine jar, or rather part of it; German pottery; a brass seal with the initials M and R entwined under a diamond shape.
And the same initials, but the other way round, are found on the base of a pewter bowl, 15cm across and 7.5cm high. The divers thought the initials were bound to identify the ship, or at least the seals owner. But despite intensive research they have no clue to the ships name.
You will not be surprised to learn that the line marked G on the survey plan runs down a gully, which was the main source of the gold.
The coins found here were widely spread. The average on most dives was eight, but one exceptional dive produced more than 100 coins.
This bonanza was found by using a metal detector over the sandy floor, close to the gully wall and near a lonely cannon.
All the coins were in good condition. The ones with faint inscriptions were like that not as a result of the wear of the sea, but of poor striking at the time they were minted. Only one of the gold coins was found in concretion, and that was right beside the cannon.
What makes these coins so valuable is their rarity. They are quarter-dinars, half-dinars and dinars from Morocco.They bear the name of Sheikh Ahmed al Masour and represent four dynasties.
In the whole of their national collections, Britain has only six similar pieces, the French have 12 and Morocco wont say, though it is believed to have very few.
The British Museum is expected to make a realistic offer to buy the collection for the nation, but if it cannot find the money, the collection could be bought by a museumabroad and taken out of Britain. The proceeds of any such sale will be shared equally among the divers.
The value of the Devon hoard is greatly increased by the fact that the vast majority of the coins date from the late 1500s to 1632. This was the period when European ships suffered most from the attacks of Barbary pirates, who emerged from the Mediterranean and attacked English shipping even in the Channel around Plymouth and Dartmouth in search of loot and slaves.
Was this a pirate ship Was she a privateer coming home with loot
The ship may never be named, but the fact that the gold coins recovered by the divers cover such a long period, and also that the gold jewellery - earrings, torques, brooches and bracelets - is without any precious stones in the settings and sometimes cut, almost chopped into pieces, suggests that this is Barbary pirates gold, more important for the weight of the gold than its looks.
The discovery of the ingots suggests other jewellery had already been melted down. The shape of the gold fingeringots is explained by their name. A scrape was made in earth with a finger and molten gold poured into the depression.
The vandalism of the jewellery is made worse by the harm done to the artistic work that went into its creation. One piece, now slashed in two and minus the fine stone that would have been its centrepiece, is almost identical to a brooch hanging from the neck of Mary, Queen of Scots, in a famous portrait of her with James I when he was six.
Among the artifacts, too, is an apothecarys jar believed to have come originally from Somerset. Seeds or pills stuck to the bottom of the pot are being analysed.
Small objects in concretion close to where the pot was found turned out to be broad beans of the 17th century. Kew Gardens says they are genetically akin to the broad beans we grow in our gardens today.
Broad beans in oil were a delicacy in the Middle East of those days, but they were also used as a diuretic, which might place them in the medicine chest of the gold ships doctor.
Almost as incredible as its discovery is the fact that the secret of the discovery of the gold has been kept for three whole years.
All was revealed last month when a press conference was held by the divers, the British Museum and the Receiver of Wreck, shortly after the Government listing of the site as that of a protected historic wreck at 50* 12.696N; 03* 44.679W and 250m around it.
This well-kept secret should be an encouragement to all divers to report their finds - from Day One the coins and gold were declared to the Receiver of Wreck and the wreck reported to the Archaeological Diving Unit, which came to inspect the site.
The site was not officially declared as protected at that time as the ADU found that the divers, under the guidance of local archaeological diver Neville Oldham, were carrying out a proper archaeological survey and logging the gold coins in position, as they did every other artifact!
The divers were also anxious to avoid early designation, as they had found during their work on the Erme tin ingot site that immediately after publication of the protection dive boats appeared in the area.
All valuable material, including coins, has now been cleared from the site, and the archaeological excavations are underway.
All the divers are full of praise for the help given to them by Veronica Robbins, the Receiver of Wreck, and the members of the Archaeological Diving Unit. Without that help, they believe that tales of pirate gold would simply have attracted pirates from all over the world!
|This happy band: from left Mick Palmer, Jim Tyson, Ron Howells, Mick Kightley and Mick Palmer |