Shipwreck treasure on display at Children’s Museum

After finding the remains of an 18th-century Spanish shipwreck in the Dominican Republic, Indiana University researchers traveled to Spain in the fall of 2010 to learn more about the history of the 90-ton merchant vessel, the Nuestra Senora de Begona.

From historical records, they uncovered a fascinating tale of deception and intrigue, a renegade ship smuggling treasure to avoid taxation from the Spanish crown — and a captain imprisoned for his crimes.

Last month, IU divers found some of the treasure: two Talegas, or bags of coins then valued at 1,000 pesos; a chest with a false bottom containing 85 pounds of silver platters, plates and other objects; and several other chests with false bottoms, designed for smuggling.

"It's not every day that you find the actual treasure. It's great stuff. Very exciting," said Charles Beeker, founding director of the Office of Underwater Science in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at IU.

The booty and other items from the 1725 shipwreck, including musket balls, ceramics and other artifacts, were being introduced to the public Tuesday at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. The Eli Lilly Foundation of Indianapolis is helping support the underwater archaeology with a $1 million grant.

Beeker has been confident that his research teams working with Dominican officials would find at least parts of the lost treasure. Still, he acknowledged, he fell victim to a bout of euphoria when the centuries-old silver was recovered. "There's a picture of me gleefully holding up the silver," he said this week. "That's not something an archaeologist is supposed to do, but I couldn't help myself."

"The thing is, it's not just the treasure; it's not like we get to keep it. It belongs to the Dominican Republic," he continued. "It's the whole story, the people of the times, the renegade ships that skirted the law to avoid taxation, the fact that our students were able to read about the court cases and what the sailors aboard the Begona said and then finding what was described nearly 300 years ago."

There are even fascinating wrinkles within the research. Some of the coins recovered were coins that were improperly forged with too much copper — which resulted in the assayer who had testified to the inaccurate value of the coins being hanged.

With 472,900 square feet, more than 120,000 artifacts and more than 1 million visitors each year, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis is the largest such museum in the world as well as one of the top-ranked institutions of its kind.

"This is the kind of rich history and science we want families to experience in our wet lab located inside our National Geographic Treasures of the Earth exhibit," Jeffrey H. Patchen, museum president and CEO, said in a prepared statement.

"We are hopeful this discovery will inspire the next generation of explorers," project co-director John Foster of IU said in the same statement. "That sense of discovery really drives archaeology and creates a sense of wonder about what might still lie beneath the sea."

The island of Hispaniola was the one of the earliest sites of extensive European exploration and was later divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti. "We hope these artifacts will inspire people to learn about our country and the history of our forefathers," Dominican official Francis Soto said. "Indiana University is very professional and has worked in my country for many years, and I am happy they are willing to share this discovery in the children's museum. Where else would be better?"

Various shipwrecks and artifacts are being preserved in the Dominican Republic as IU and other research institutions work with the country to create both underwater archaeology sites and modern museums.

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