By Dave Rust, Children's Museum Photographer and Video Producer
As the Museum's photographer and videographer, I need to capture imagery of everything, which means that I get the opportunity to see up-close a lot of the amazing things folks do around here. I never know what I might do next, or when I'll be handed traveling orders! Would you believe that this summer I got the chance to visit the Caribbean Sea and the nation of the Dominican Republic—for work?
My trip’s objective: to capture video of Prof. Charles Beeker, our Extraordinary Underwater Archaeologist-in-Residence, as he leads Indiana University researchers on a search for clues to the Spanish galleon, Begoña, a ship that was lost to rocky shores and high winds in 1725.
The History of the Begoña
Prof. Beeker tells us that the Begoña and its captain were faced with a no-win situation 300 years ago. The Begoña’s Spanish passengers were especially enterprising…maybe too much so! They had mined silver in nearby Central America and wanted to bring it back to Spain without paying the King’s tax. So they hid sliver coins, jewelry, and table settings in trunks with false bottoms, and some of the bounty was even sewn inside their clothing. Their ship was so heavy, it sat too deeply in the water! Harbormasters wouldn’t let the Begoña into Santo Domingo waters to pick up supplies before the ship's big hop to Spain. They were afraid it’d get stuck in the shallows and plug the harbor’s entrance.
Out in deep water with no supplies and facing bad weather for days, the captain had to attempt a hard landing several miles east of the capital in order to protect the crew and passengers. Everyone got off alive, but the winds bashed the ship against the rocks until it broke into pieces. Almost all of that illegal baggage was lost under just 10 feet of water! But one trunk was pulled from the waves and everyone began the long walk back to Santo Domingo. When guards encountered the drenched passengers, they wondered why the group was even bothering to carry a bulky trunk all the way back to the capital. Guards took a look inside and the secret was out. The passengers and the ship’s captain faced serious legal penalties…despite the heroic efforts by the captain to save everyone’s lives.
What We're Discovering Today
I used an underwater camera to document SCUBA divers as they used pumps called dredges to remove layers of sand from the bottom of La Caleta inlet. As they dredged, objects long buried were revealed by the day’s bright sunlight. Since they’ve begun these exhibitions, divers have found many pounds of silver, table settings, swords, cannon balls, and musket balls.
During my trip, they uncovered one of the ship’s cannon (called “guns” when on deck). Another team thought they found a smaller deck gun (called a verso), though it was heavily encrusted with coral rock. Researchers will have to remove the coatings to see if it is indeed a ship’s weapon…or just a modern water pipe. Other divers were excited by objects that appear to have come from the local natives, the Taino. Pottery, especially bowls for carrying water and food, seem to be common finds in this bay. Prof. Beeker says this isn’t a surprise, since this beach was a part of a large native village for hundreds of years and has long since been abandoned.
After being pounded by the surf for hundreds of years, clay objects are usually found broken. The team also found a knob-like handle that probably came from a bowl. Experts on the team say this is often the case…with turtle heads being a common theme, but this one looks more like a person’s face to me. In any case, it's likely much older than artifacts from the Begoña.
Indiana University wants to learn everything it can about the Begoña. When the research team is done, Prof. Beeker hopes to put many of the items on display underwater in the same inlet of La Caleta, creating an underwater museum for other SCUBA divers and snorkelers to explore. Some of the other artifacts—including a conglomerate of 18th century silver coins—are now on display at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Now Hoosiers can see for themselves these clues about how people lived in the Caribbean so long ago.
The silver coins aren't the only new artifacts on display in the working Archaeology Lab in the Treasures of the Earth gallery. There are also new Columbus-era cannons on view, centuries older than the Begoña. While most families' fall break plans may not include a trip to SCUBA in the Caribbean, you can still experience these extraordinary artifacts right here in Indianapolis!