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Oceans Odyssey 3: The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet

Edited by Greg Stemm and Sean Kingsley

Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013

8-3/4” x 11-1/4”, hardcover xxv + 190 pages

Illustrations, tables, notes, bibliographies. $39.95

ISBN: 9781782971481 

            The aim of the first of the two volumes on the archaeology of the Dry Tortugas shipwreck is to present the results of the artifact analysis and to propose a tentative identification for the ship. This book also expresses Odyssey Marine Exploration’s commitment to sharing the results of their work with society. However, after twenty years since the conclusion of the excavation, only a collection of six preliminary reports was produced.

            The Dry Tortugas shipwreck was partially excavated by Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology of Tampa between 1990 and 1991. This project was a commercial operation directed to identify valuable artifacts. The site is located at a depth of 450 meters off the Tortugas Islands in the Florida Keys. Due to its depth, it was excavated exclusively using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) which recorded the position of the artifacts before to be recovered. This shipwreck has been tentatively identified as the Portuguese-built and Spanish-operated 117-ton Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a small merchant ship of the ill-fated Tierra Firme fleet of 1622.

            The analysis of the site and the artifact assemblage is presented in a descriptive manner accompanied by various small-scale artifact distribution plans. The chapters are illustrated with color photographs showing the excavation work and artifacts. Unfortunately, the location of the images rarely matches what is written in the text, and there are no archaeological illustrations. The authors provide nonessential data in an attempt to support their analysis, but this information is often irrelevant to the archaeological interpretation of the shipwreck. For example, the section on the chemical composition of ballast stone samples did not include any reference to their provenance. Additionally, personal comments are frequently used to validate ideas proposed in the text that cannot be verified in the bibliography, such as Lyon’s comment to justify the presence of silver coins minted in Mexico on board the Tierra Firme fleet ships. Contradictions in the analysis also exist between different chapters of the book, like the analysis of the same pig bones assemblage in chapters Three and Five. In an effort to compensate for the inconsistencies in the book, the authors refer to forthcoming publications, which would have strengthened the quality of the book had they been included.           

With respect to the proposed identification of the shipwreck, the historical and archaeological evidence is not conclusive apart from confirming the date of the shipwreck and its connection to the Tierra Firme fleet of 1622. The identification relies on the measurement of the ship’s keel whose accuracy is uncertain. An identification based on the dimensions of hull components would require a complete study of the hull timbers through an accurate hull plan to provide their exact dimensions. The absence of a homeward-bound manifest to be correlated with the artifact assemblage makes the historical interpretation of the shipwreck speculative. Although Kingsley suggests an interesting theory, it seems that further archaeological and archival research is needed to confirm the shipwreck identity.

            Although Odyssey Marine Exploration has made an effort to prove that for-profit excavations can be conducted and published in a scientific archaeological manner, the outcome seems to prove otherwise. It has to be noted that this excavation was aimed to recover valuable artifacts; the hull remains were not systematically recorded and 8,400 artifacts from the original assemblage were sold so they cannot be reexamined. Contrary to what the authors believe, all these factors compromise the scientific value of their archaeological interpretations rather than aid them. 

Jose Luis Casaban