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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (02/2004) Headlines (01/2004) Headlines (03/2004)   Vol. 38 February 2004 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the February 2004 edition of W&ET Magazine


After searching the ocean for more than 10 years, marine explorers found crates of gold last week at the site of a Civil War-era shipwreck about 100 miles east of Savannah.

Archaeologists and technicians from Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. on Thursday found 80 gold coins and at least two wooden crates of gold coins buried in the sediment, said company spokeswoman Laura Lionetti Barton.

The gold's worth is not yet know, said Barton, who added that the old coins must still be lifted very carefully from the ocean floor.

"We don't want to scratch them," Barton said.

Though Barton declined specific estimates Friday, she suggested last week that coins from the shipwreck could be worth more than $120 million.

Barton said Saturday that her company has been awarded temporary legal custody of all that is recovered from the shipwreck and is confident it will gain a 100-percent salvage award.

"We anticipate marketing the coins and the cargo," she said.

Last August, Odyssey's salvage crews found what they believed was the site where the side-wheel steamer SS Republic sank during a hurricane in 1865, Barton said.

Newspaper accounts at the time said 59 to 81 passengers were on board and 13 to 17 died, Barton said. The gold went down with the ship.

From The Associated Press, submitted by David M. Wolan, Charlotte, NC.


Archaeologists diving in a reef channel on remote Kure Atoll have found the 133-year-old wreck of the USS Saginaw, whose crew was involved in one of the most heroic and tragic maritime rescues in Hawaii history.

A team of marine archaeologists went to Kure, 1,000 miles northwest of Kauai, in August as part of a summer field reconnaissance in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. While diving on the reef looking for any sign of the storied Saginaw, the team found a trail of metal artifacts.

The reserve's maritime heritage manager and team leader Hans Van Tilburg described finding large iron anchors resting on top of one another, tucked in a shallow cavern. Copper drift pins used to join the major timbers of the vessel lay twisted on the bottom, and bronze gudgeons, the straps that held the rudder to the stern of the ship, were snapped in two.

"Heavily encrusted and welded to the reef itself were two small iron (cannons), the waist guns of the ship," Van Tilburg said.

The cannons were the key to the wreck's identity. No other ships known to have wrecked on Kure- whalers, a coal ship and fishing boats- carried cannons.

The Saginaw was a 155-foot Navy ship, the first American warship built on the West Coast. It was used for anti-piracy patrols on the China coast and preventing Confederate ships from attacking West Coast interests during the Civil War.

Because it is a Navy ship, and the government has not relinquished title, it is under the jurisdiction of the Naval Historical Center, which will determine whether any of the wreckage will be recovered or how it might be conserved.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands form a vast network of islands, reefs and shoals that have trapped dozens of ships that were in the area for whaling, guano mining, fishing, coal transport, collecting bird feathers and eggs and- not insignificantly- salvaging ships that wrecked there.

The Saginaw was built during the transition from sail power to steam, and had both. Its boiler powered big side-wheels. When Congress sought to turn Midway Atoll into a coal-refueling station for the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., it dispatched the Saginaw to bring in the divers and engineers who would blast a channel into Midway's lagoon.

As the ship was leaving Midway, its captain decided to stop by Kure, 60 miles beyond Midway, to check for castaways. The crew misjudged the strength of the current on the overnight sail, and at 3:22 a.m. Oct. 30, 1870, the Saginaw was hard aground on Kure's eastern reef.

The surf rose and broke the ship in half as crew members clung to the stern. The ship's main mast had fallen onto the shallow reef, and the crew used it as a bridge to crawl to the calm waters of the Kure lagoon. All 93 men aboard survived the wreck.

They made their way to Green Island, a few acres of coral and sand near the edge of the reef. Five men volunteered to sail for help. They used parts of the wreckage to modify a light, 22-foot captain's boat for the trip and set off Nov. 18.

Storms carried away their oars and the food ran out, but after 31 days, the five, too weak to control the boat, reached the waters off Kauai's north shore and washed into the coastal surf.

John Andrews and Peter Francis were swept away and killed. Lt. John G. Talbot sank in his heavy clothing. Coxswain William Halford managed to pull James Muir ashore, but Muir died on the beach.

Talbot's body was shipped to his home in Kentucky. Andrews and Muir are buried in Nuuanu Cemetery on Oahu. Francis' body was never found.

Halford caught a ship for Honolulu the next day, and the steamer Kilauea was dispatched Dec. 26, reaching Kure on Jan. 3, 1871. The remaining Saginaw crew members, who had survived on monk seals, albatrosses and rainwater, were brought safely to Honolulu 11 days later.

Halford earned the Medal of Honor and survived to serve in World War I in his 70s.

The 22-foot boat that carried the five heroic crew members now lies in the Castle Museum in Saginaw, Michigan.

Van Tilburg said there are still undiscovered parts of the Saginaw, including its engine and the massive paddle-wheel shaft. And while the configuration of the known wreckage confirms the crew's reports on how the vessel broke up, there is still much to be learned.

"Further discoveries can uncover details of the salvage of the wreck and the experiences of the survivors on the island," he said.

California marine archaeologist Tom Layton of San Jose State University said shipwrecks can bring history to life.

"You can take a vessel of this kind that seems not very important, and use it as a vehicle to deal with a lot of stories. It gives you the opportunity to look at a specific place and time and provides us with a new revisionist, fresh look at history," he said.

Van Tilburg's team included Brad Rodgers and Kelly Gleason of East Carolina University's Program in Maritime Studies and Andrew Lydecker of Panamerican Maritime Inc.

From the Honolulu Advertiser, submitted by Ron Paul Smith, Honolulu, HI.


The mystery of what happened to $1.5 million in cash missing since a 1995 armored car robbery was solved over the weekend in a swamp.

Sheriff's deputies acting on a tip unearthed what was left of the loot- rotted, threadlike pieces of bills and money wrappers, two canvas duffel bags and a few plastic trash bags.

The money was so badly deteriorated it was worthless, said sheriff's spokesman Randy Christian.

"It looks like a shredded mess. It's just a mass of green goo," he said.

Christian said authorities are trying to determine whether new charges are possible since the robbery happened eight years ago, and the money appeared to have been in the ground at least five years.

Two Wells Fargo employees were sent to prison for stealing $1.7 million from their own armored truck and making it look as if they were the victims of a robbery. The two men were found tied up and blindfolded.

They told police they planned the robbery with two other men, but no one else was ever charged. A year after the heist, authorities recovered $200,000 of the loot from homes in Alabama. But $1.5 million remained missing.

Deputies said they were tipped Sunday night and found what they believed to be the rest of the money buried about 6 inches deep in a marsh off a heavily traveled road in Fairfield.

From The Associated Press, submitted by Cheryl Fealy, Las Vegas, NV.


A cooperative effort by Maya village elders, an American archaeologist and Guatemalan federal police has led to the recovery of a precious Maya altar looted from a major archaeological dig- and to one of the largest arrests of looters and illicit artifact dealers in that country's history.

The altar's recovery is a tale that might have come straight from the archives of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, replete with clandestine raids, fierce gun battles and dangerous undercover investigations.

The 600-pound altar from 796 is expected to reveal information about the collapse of the Maya civilization and one of its wealthiest kingdoms, said archaeologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University, who participated in the recovery.

"These gigantic altars were actually recording treaties and alliances," he said. "What we are getting here is, really, a detailed picture of what went on at the end of (the Maya empire), the Machiavellian politics of this great king."

The altar was stolen from Cancuen, in the heart of the Guatemalan rain forest. Once thought to have been a minor outpost, Cancuen was found by Demarest to be one of the wealthiest cities in the region. Although the city did not have a powerful army, its leaders amassed power by entering strategic alliances with other cities.

The altar depicts Cancuen's greatest king playing handball with another king, a ritual formalization of an alliance.

The altar apparently was exposed by heavy rains in October 2001, a time of year when Demarest's team was not working at the site. As the story was later pieced together, a local gang of looters spotted it and hauled it to their encampment down river.

They took photographs of the altar and distributed them, looking for a buyer. A local gang of "narcotrafficantes" offered $4,000 for it, but the looters held out for more.

In December, a split among the looters led four members to steal the altar. Later, the gang leader retrieved it in a pitched gun battle.

The drug traffickers, meanwhile, had not forgotten the altar. In January, a group raided a village where they thought the altar was, viciously beating a woman in an effort to learn its whereabouts.

Village elders went to Demarest's camp seeking help. They told him about the altar and the beaten woman and expressed their fears about the effects the theft would have on developing the region as a tourist destination.

Demarest met the district governor, who was also the regional head of the drug traffickers, according to National Geographic. He persuaded the official not to interfere with efforts to recover the altar. The governor, however, was gunned down a few hours later by a rival.

The next month, Demarest reported the theft to the government, which called in the Servicios de Investigacion Criminal, Guatemala's equivalent of the FBI. Guided by Demarest, the SIC raided the looter's camp, arresting the leader and his top lieutenant.

Unfortunately, the raid was too late. The altar had been sold. But they did recover a photo of the altar, which was sent to law enforcement officials around the world.

Using undercover agents, SIC tracked the altar through several layers of dealers, always arriving just a little too late.

But their efforts to publicize the theft paid off. A dealer who planned to move the altar to Belize sent the altar back to the region it came from to be buried for a couple of years until it could be sold safely.

Again, Maya villagers informed authorities, and the altar was recovered last month.

From the Honolulu Advertiser, submitted by Ron Paul Smith, Honolulu, HI.

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