Monday, February 29, 2016

3/1/16 Report - A Story About The Difficulty of Interpreting The Source And Date of A Lost Item. When Location Isn't Enough.

Written by the TreasureGuide for the exclusive use of

This isn't just one more post about swivel guns.  It is about more than that.

Lets start with an article about "a" swivel gun.  The article I'm talking about is an online article about a swivel gun found between the Margarita and Atocha wreck sites.  The article is actually a reprint written by Corey Malcom that was originally printed in The Navigator: Newsletter of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, Vol.11, No.4, April, 1997.

One paragraph of that article says, Other than its location upon discovery, there is no evidence to support the theory that this swivel gun is a part of the scattered wreckage from either of the Atocha or Santa Margarita. Rather, it seems clear that this cannon represents the first attempt by a quick thinking survivor of the tragedy to mark the location of the sunken galleons for later salvage. Unfortunately, subsequent storms quickly followed and carried away the buoy that this gun anchored, not only leaving it lost at the bottom of the sea, but further destroying what remained of both the Atocha and Margarita. For another 364 years this piece had to lay quietly where it had been dropped before finally being able to reveal its tortuous journey from the 16th to 20th centuries. 

Sometimes we think that because an item is found close to or in a similar circumstance to another item it must be from the same time period or same source.  That can be the case, but it isn't always the case - especially when the location is a beach or in the water.

As I've mentioned in the past, the beach is a turbulent place.  Sand comes ago - time and time again.   There are two tidal cycles almost twice a day.  Things get churned up.  That is why there is no remaining context, as the archaeologists like to say.  Things get scattered an intermixed from different times and sources.

It is true that if you find one item from a time period, the probability is greater that you will find another from a similar time period.  There are times when you are not likely to find anything old at a particular beach location and the presence of one "older" item greatly increases the probability of another.  Same thing for source.  However, it is also true that you can find a good bunch of 20th century objects and still find an earlier item in the group.  The greater the number items found, the better the chances are of finding something even older in the mix.

You can find old items on a beach that were lost only yesterday.  Don't forget that old items are still being carried around - maybe infrequently, but it does happen.  An 18th Century gold coin, could have been dropped just yesterday.  Old things are still being lost today.

I've seen 1715 Fleet gold coins that were found on a beach that were originally found decades ago by modern salvors, were mounted in a ring or pendant, and then lost again.

If you hunt in a place like south Florida, you might find a good number of old gold coins mounted in jewelry.  But of course, they don't have to be mounted in jewelry.

There are still old coins in circulation.  And occasionally little Johnnie takes an item from daddies collection and loses it.  Point being that not all old items were lost long ago.

That was particularly true in older days.  As you'll see from many undisturbed archaeological sites where the context has not been disturbed, people in older times kept things longer.  They repaired things over and over and continued to use them for decades or centuries.  The modern home in 1700, might contain a lot of items from much earlier periods.  It wasn't like they furnished the home exclusively with items that were purchased within the last three years.   Things were made to last longer, and on the average they were used much longer than the stuff we buy and use today.  The age range of items from an old site is often much broader than from a more modern site.

The fact is that dating an item can be particularly difficult for older items because of the broad range of items kept in use in older days, and new and old items can be mixed together, particularly on the beach or in shallow water.

When old coins are being found they can be from different decades or even centuries.  When you are getting to the old stuff, the possibility of finding even older stuff increases, but you can't be sure that things are from the same source just because they are found together.

As much as they like to talk about shipwreck sites as being a time capsule, it is not unusual to see beer cans, sinkers, etc. on an 18th century shipwreck.  There might still be a high degree of clustering, but items from different ages and sources can get mixed together.

That is one thing the article about this swivel gun illustrates.  It is thought that it was not lost with the Atocha or Margarita, but was used to anchor a buoy to mark the shipwrecks.

There is a tendency to accept the simplest explanation as the most correct, but often the story of an artifact is both more interesting and complex than the simplest or "most obvious" interpretation.

This paper reveals the interesting story behind a swivel gun.  Good historical research can help to reveal a lot about an artifact.  Still the apparent answer might not be right.  There is still an element of uncertainty and mystery.  What is the real story?  We'll probably never know for certain.  And maybe that is part of the fun and fascination of an old artifact.

Here is the link to the article.  Enjoy!

And here is an illustration of that particular gun from that article.


I spent all of yesterday in the hospital trying to help someone and haven't been out to the beach much lately for a variety of reasons.  Just goes to show what is really important.

Make the best of the good days.  Be kind and helpful.

Happy hunting,