Priceless Artifacts Recently Discovered From Historic Sunken Ship In The Bahamas To Be Displayed In New Museum
I first met Carl Allen after hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas in 2019. He’d just donated the use of his 182-foot-long Yacht Support Vessel AXIS to help the locals on some of the hardest hit islands in the Abacos.
During that first meeting, I learned how much Allen and his family care about the Bahamas. I also learned—sort of—why he owned such a serious support vessel that’s capable of carrying and deploying a Triton submarine, numerous outboard-powered boats and teams of scuba divers too. Back then, all he said was… “We like to search for stuff underwater.”
Turns out, his company—Allen Exploration— has found lots of “stuff” underwater in his beloved Bahamas. In fact, the brand new Bahamas Maritime Museum his team has built in Freeport, Grand Bahama to display numerous priceless artifacts they’ve recovered from the Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas that sank off the Bahamas on January 4, 1656, opens to the public on August 8.
As you might guess of a passionate underwater explorer, Allen is a wonderful combination of realist, romantic, and history buff. He’s a realist when he talks about how hard, frustrating, and expensive recovering artifacts (using AXIS and other boats) that have been strewn across countless miles of open ocean can be. “It’s like searching for a needle…in a desert… underwater,” he says.
But he’s a romantic when he talks about the myth of the Maravillas that’s occupied his imagination since he was young. And he’s a total history buff when he starts talking about what life must have been like in 1656. In fact, he can talk for hours—from memory—about all the historical documents that the archeologists he works with have found (and translated from 17th century Spanish) that paint a detailed picture of who the crew and passengers were, as well as list the large number of gold and silver coins, silver bars and loose gemstones and many other artifacts it was carrying when it sank.
One of the most stunning artifacts Allen and his team have found so far is a 5-foot, 9-inch long gold chain that weighs almost 2 full pounds that was likely intended for a wealthy aristocrat or even royalty. Allen Exploration lead marine archaeologist James Sinclair believes it was probably crafted Chinese craftsmen in the Philippines and then exported to Spain by way of Mexico on a Manila galleon.
Other one-of-a-kind finds that will be on display in the museum include a gold pendant with the Cross of Santiago. A second gold pendant found features a Cross of St. James over a large Colombian emerald. The outer edge is framed by 12 more square emeralds, perhaps symbolizing the 12 apostles.
“When we brought up the oval emerald and gold pendants, I literally couldn’t breathe for 30 seconds,” says Allen. “I feel a greater connection with the everyday finds than coins and jewels, but these Santiago finds bridge both worlds. The pendant mesmerizes me when I hold it and think about its history.”
Since Allen’s team includes experienced marine archaeologists like James Sinclair, they are learning more about the history every day. And since his team has also plotted over 8,800 magnetometer targets across three search areas measuring around 55 square miles each, they’ve only scratched the surface of what artifacts they still may find. The best news is, the position of every artifact tagged and mapped when it’s brought up, so they’re recovering and preserving priceless history as well.
“Piecing together what’s left of the Maravillas is a long process,” Sinclair adds. “The ship may have been obliterated by past salvage and hurricanes. But we’re convinced there are more stories out there. Allen Exploration just discovered its first solid silver bar that weighs about 70 pounds. Most importantly, everything discovered is treated with the same respect and mapped in georeferenced databases. Now we’re connecting the dots, for the first time plotting how the Maravillas broke up in 1656 and became a scattered wreck.”
And unlike former recovery projects that were purely commercial, Allen Exploration has a strict permit from the government of the Bahamas and is committed to keeping its entire collection together for public display. Nothing is being sold. In fact quite the opposite. Allen has also purchased a collection owned by a former investor and a rare bronze Spanish navigational astrolabe found off Lucaya Beach that will be on display as well.
“For a nation built from the ocean, it’s astonishing how little is understood about The Bahamas’ maritime links” says Dr. Michael Pateman, Director of The Bahamas Maritime Museum. “Few know that the Indigenous Lucayan peoples, for instance, settled in The Bahamas 1,300 years ago. Or that the whole population, up to 60,000 people, was forced out by Spanish guns, made to dive for pearls off Venezuela, and killed off in less than three decades. There was a dazzling Old World in The Bahamas long before European ships thought they found a New World. The Lucayans, slave trade, pirates and the Maravillas are core stories we’re sharing in the museum.”
“It’s definitely been a childhood dream to be doing what I’m doing now,” Allen says. “But Gigi and I started with our love of the Bahamas. We’ve helped out after the hurricanes hit and during the pandemic too. Finding and preserving these artifacts is way bigger than just Gigi and me. “We’ve been building our operation for years. We’ve got the right people that are doing it the right way. And we’re doing some of the best archeological data recording that’s ever been done.”
And now that the Bahamas Maritime Museum is about to open in Freeport, Allen is about to share these one-of-a-kind finds with the world.