Colombia’s technological quest to discover the secrets of the San José Galleon

Colombia’s technological quest to discover the secrets of the San José Galleon
Colombia’s technological quest to discover the secrets of the San José Galleon

Colombia is embarking on an ambitious scientific effort to investigate the Spanish galleon San José, which British ships sank off the coast of Cartagena de Indias in the 18th century. Discovered in 2015, this historic treasure lies more than 600 meters deep and promises to reveal important archaeological knowledge.

Colombia undertakes one of the most ambitious scientific investigations in its history: the exploration of the Spanish galleon San José, which British pirates sank in the 18th century off the coast of Cartagena de Indias. Discovered in 2015, the wreck lies more than 600 meters deep. This monumental effort involves multiple institutions, including the Ministry of Cultures, the Navy, and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH).

The project, led by several government and academic institutions, aims to illuminate the rich historical and cultural heritage associated with San José. “It is the first time that we have made such a significant effort associated with archaeology, culture and heritage,” Rear Admiral Hermann León, head of Maritime and River Interests of the Colombian Navy, told Efe. The Navy’s ARC Caribe ship, equipped with advanced technology, will facilitate the exploration of the wreck at such great depths.

To safeguard the site from treasure hunters, the Colombian government has declared the area a “Protected Archaeological Zone of the Nation,” ensuring its coordinates remain confidential. “This is the first protected archaeological area in Colombia in underwater space and the first of its kind in America at this depth,” León added.

Historical importance of San José

The San José, built in 1698 in Guipúzcoa, Spain, was a Spanish Navy ship sunk on June 8, 1708 during an attack by British privateers. According to accounts from the time, the ship was headed to Cartagena de Indias, loaded with approximately 11 million gold and silver coins collected at the fair in Portobelo, Panama.

Spain claims ownership of the San José according to UNESCO guidelines, stating that it is a “ship of state” that flies its flag. Colombia, which has designated the San José as a “submerged cultural heritage asset,” is open to collaborating with Spain to treat the wreck as shared heritage.

The importance of research

Alhena Caicedo, director of ICANH, emphasized that the research aims to transform the understanding and valuation of Colombia’s archaeological heritage. “The idea is to strip away the mythological aura that surrounds the treasure and focus on the archaeological narrative that can provide valuable knowledge about the history of Colombia and the Caribbean,” Caicedo told Efe.

The project seeks to protect and highlight the cultural importance of the site, going beyond the allure of gold and silver to uncover a deeper historical context. This involves involving various stakeholders, from indigenous groups asserting their rights over the wreck to academics specializing in heritage conservation.

A comprehensive and inclusive approach

Caicedo explained that the research aims to include multiple perspectives to offer a more nuanced understanding of the past. “We want to ensure that this high-level scientific research incorporates diverse voices and perspectives, helping to enrich our understanding of history and memory,” he added.

This inclusive approach ensures that the findings contribute to a broader and more complex narrative of Colombia’s past, providing a richer context for future generations. In doing so, the project aims to create a national identity rooted in a deeper appreciation of the country’s archaeological and cultural heritage.

Technological and Methodological Innovations

The use of advanced technology is critical to the success of San José research. The ARC Caribe vessel is equipped with state-of-the-art tools capable of operating at the depths where the wreck is located. These technologies will enable detailed exploration and documentation of the site, ensuring that the investigation meets the highest standards of archaeological practice.

The investigation will unfold in six phases, each meticulously planned to maximize discovery potential while preserving the integrity of the site. The protected status of the area will facilitate controlled and systematic exploration, free from threats of looting or unauthorized interference.

International collaboration and future perspectives

The San José project has attracted international attention and support, reflecting its importance as a major archaeological enterprise. The collaboration between Colombia and Spain and the participation of global institutions such as UNESCO highlight the shared commitment to preserve and understand this unique cultural heritage.

The findings from the San José research are expected to contribute significantly to maritime archeology and historical research. The project promises to uncover new insights into 18th-century socio-economic dynamics, Caribbean naval history, and the broader context of colonial-era trade and conflict.

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Colombia’s investigation into the San José galleon represents a historic effort to explore and preserve a vital piece of the country’s heritage. By combining advanced technology, international collaboration, and a commitment to inclusive historical research, this project enriches our understanding of the past and informs the future.

As exploration progresses, the world watches with anticipation, eager to see what secrets the depths of the Caribbean will reveal about historic San José and the rich history it represents.

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