Published: May 1, 2013
From left Stanley Petithomme '14 and Morgan Parker '14 examine a bottle of preserved fruit – thought to be gooseberries – one of the over 14,000 artifacts Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered from the 1865 wreck of the SS Republic.
Stanley Petithomme '14 holds a replica of one of the 27 gold bars recovered from the wreck of the Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario.
It’s not every Monday evening that Associate Professor Bruce Friesen’s global sociology students get within touching distance of antiquities.
This past April, though, they held a jar of gooseberries, gazed at ship’s portholes immersed in solution to extract the sea’s salt and stood among rows of centuries-old ceramic jars while on a tour of Odyssey Marine Exploration’s conservation lab in Tampa. Although the lab is closed to the public, Odyssey allowed Friesen’s students to visit the facility and learn about the company’s pioneering work.
“When you’re discovering these things, can you not help but feel the chaos that ensued around the wreck?” asked Doug Weigelt ’13 while on the April 22 tour.
Ellen Gerth, Odyssey’s archaeological curator, concurred.
“Absolutely. You work your way backward in time; what occurred as the ship was sinking is more than what the newspapers described,” Gerth said. “The items we find, combined with our research, which in one case included a passenger’s journal, tell a day-to-day story of human lives.”
Friesen contacted Gerth when he heard about Odyssey’s recently published reports about the shipwreck of the Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a Spanish merchant vessel sailing with the 1622 Tierra Firme treasure fleet. The ship was sailing back to Seville when a hurricane sent it to depths that made it the world’s first deep-sea archaeological excavation exclusively using robotic technology, according to Odyssey.
The wreck was found by Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology, under the leadership of Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm, at a depth of 405 meters at a site off the Tortugas Islands in the Florida Keys. The wreck was discovered in 1989, and Odyssey recently published a book documenting the recovered artifacts and treasures, which included gold bars, silver coins and pearls mined in the New World.
In Friesen’s classroom, the students cover 200,000 years of human history, reviewing the story of European imperialism and the effect it had on the world and its people, both good and bad, he said.
“Connecting that part of the story to a wreck found off the coast of Florida was too good to pass up, especially a ship whose sinking helped bankrupt the central bank of Spain,” Friesen said. “By hearing the story of the shipwreck, the context and seeing and touching parts of the 400-year-old contents, you can't escape the observation that this was real. It involved real people. It's not just a story, and the reality 400 years ago continues to have implications for the present.”
John Oppermann, director of archeology, research and conservation for Odyssey, said the Tortugas wreck implied a very complex economy of a vast, monopolistic trading empire at the time, as artifacts from the wreck could be traced to places all over the world.
“They had an incredible business sense and created the Apple products of the day,” said Oppermann, who helped lead the tour of the lab with Gerth. “They created the building blocks to what you all are studying today in economics.”
Shipwrecks offer a rich slice of information from the past. As Gerth described, “Shipwrecks and their artifacts are a time capsule of one archeological composite, which is rare.”
The opportunity to witness these pieces of history was just as unique.
“It’s amazing,” Weigelt said. “It’s incredible, because you get the story behind it all.”
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