Scientists Find the $17-Billion ‘Holy Grail of Shipwrecks’


Three years after locating the ghostly galleon San José, researchers reveal how they made their famous find. (Science Alert)

Use our article to learn how marine archaeologists explore the history and cultures of ancient civilizations.

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The gunpowder magazines aboard the San José exploded in a battle with the British Navy in 1708. Almost 600 people, as well as gold, silver, and emeralds worth about $17 billion (May 2018) went down with the ship.
Painting by Samuel Scott, courtesy National Maritime Museum (UK) and Wikimedia. Public domain
Those beautiful leaping dolphins on these cannons were the telltale sign that this was the storied San José.
Photograph by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Discussion Ideas

  • What was the San José? Why was it so laden with precious metals and gems?
    • The San José was a 62-cannon galleon that was part of the Spanish Treasure Fleet. The Spanish Treasure Fleet was exactly what it sounds like—a cargo fleet of hundreds of ships linking Spain with its resource-rich colonies in the Americas.
      • Americas → Spain: The Spanish Treasure Fleet certainly transported luxury goods such as precious metals and gems, but the real “treasures” shipped to Europe were lumber, agricultural resources, sugar, and tobacco.
      • Spain → Americas: Finished goods such as tools, textiles, and books were transported from Europe to the booming territories in the Americas.
    • In 1708, the San José was sailing from Portobelo, Panama, to Cartagena, Colombia. The ship carried gold, silver, and emeralds mined from Spanish colonies in what are now Bolivia and Peru.
      • The treasure of the San José was intended to fund the Bourbon side in the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict in which western Europe was fighting over two contenders for the powerful Spanish throne. In 1708, the San José and the 16 other ships in its fleet (!) encountered a British fleet and engaged in a conflict known as Wager’s Action. (The United Kingdom supported the Hapsburg side in the war.) In the conflict, the gunpowder magazines of the San José suddenly exploded, and the ship sank very suddenly. Of the 600 men in her crew, only 11 survived.
    • The wreck sits on the seafloor, about 600 meters (2,000 feet) below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Cartagena.



  • If the site was discovered in 2015, and possibly as far back as 1981, why is it news now?
    • technology. WHOI withheld details about how REMUS 6000 contributed to the discovery “out of respect for the Colombian government” (which funded the operation). The government likely wanted to secure the site to prevent looting.
    • cultural heritage. Who does the San José belong to? The explorers who discovered the wreck? Colombia? the United Kingdom? Spain? Peru and Bolivia?
      • That question was pretty much settled three years ago: The wreck was recovered within Colombia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and a series of court cases in both Colombia and the United States established that the shipwreck and all artifacts are property of the Colombian government.




Science Alert: Scientists Have Found The ‘Holy Grail of Shipwrecks’ And Up to $17 Billion in Treasure

WHOI: New Details on Discovery of San Jose Shipwreck

Maritime Archaeology Consultants: San Jose Story

Nat Geo: Ancient Shipwrecks of the Black Sea


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