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The Oldest Shipwreck: A Cautionary Tale

This rollicking story reveals the Museum’s rather inauspicious start.
Story & Illustrations By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

“Divers find oldest shipwreck in the Caribbean . . . and treasure that could be worth MILLIONS” screamed the headline in the Daily Mail on April 29, 2011. Nicknamed the “Precioso site” by the American treasure hunters working it, the shipwreck is located off the east coast of the Dominican Republic. This caught my attention immediately because for the last 30 years the Spanish shipwreck we excavated off Molasses Reef in the Caicos Islands has been recognized as the oldest ever found in the entire Western Hemisphere.

I read on, eagerly, curious to know how they dated the wreck and what was on it. By the reference to “700 silver coins” in the third sentence I was already suspicious. The presence of coins meant the ship went down some time after the Mexico City mint was established in 1536. By the end of the article I knew that the Molasses Reef Wreck’s title was still safe. The “Precioso” went down decades later, probably after the middle of the 1500s based on the dateable coins. Furthermore, the remains of the ship seemed to be widely scattered and already picked over by local divers.
The story brought back memories of the way the Molasses Reef Wreck burst on the global media scene in 1980, complete with similar hyperbole and outlandish claims made by Caribbean Ventures, the treasure hunting group that announced the find. They claimed it was one of the three ships Columbus used on his first voyage to the New World, La Pinta, and that it sank in 1498 loaded with a cargo of “red pearls” worth $100,000,000!
A visitor quietly perusing the Molasses Reef Wreck exhibit in the Turks & Caicos National Museum today would never imagine the dramatic struggle between treasure hunters and archaeologists that preceded the site’s excavation, or appreciate the fact that if the archaeologists had lost the fight there would be no Molasses Reef Wreck exhibit or, for that matter, Turks & Caicos National Museum!

Confrontation with Nomad

Armed confrontation on Molasses Reef, 1981.

Caribbean Ventures convinced the TCI government to give them a contract to salvage the shipwreck in exchange for a cut of the “profit.” I got involved a month after the discovery was announced when Governor John Strong asked the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), which I worked for at the time, to send someone who could visit the site and give the government an independent assessment. I got the assignment and soon found myself aboard the R/V Morning Watch, headed for Molasses Reef with South Caicos fishermen Tim Hamilton and Sam Hall guiding us to the site.
Far from land, on the edge of the abyss, Molasses Reef is a diver’s paradise. While we inspected and photographed the site, giant sea turtles glided past. The reef teemed with all manner of marine life. Curious parrotfish and angels followed us around like friendly puppies. Sharks and barracuda glided by as if on patrol. The main part of the site was a mound of ballast stones about 40 feet long and almost as wide, garnished with different types of cannons and a single anchor lying in water only about 15 feet deep. You could stand up in knee-deep water on the shallowest parts of the reef less than 50 yards away. It was a nautical archaeologists’ dream.
The warm, clear, shallow water meant that divers could work on it virtually all day without fear of decompression sickness. Protected from the worst wind and seas by its location on the southwest side of the Caicos Bank, 12 miles from the nearest inhabited island, it could only be worked from small, shallow draft boats operating from a fairly large mother ship moored in the shallows of the bank on the other side of the reef.
The bad news was that all the visible artifacts and the ballast stones were heavily concreted to the seabed. It would take a lot of effort to free them without breaking something in the process. The constant surge and shallow sand deposits at the site made it unlikely that we would find much of the ship’s wooden hull or other organic material like fabric, leather, cordage or bone, but metal preservation seemed to be good.
What interested us most was the ordnance—the guns. They were not your normal, garden-variety cast iron muzzle-loading cannons like the ones you see in front of the Post Office on Grand Turk. Instead, they were four different types of spindly-looking wrought-iron breech-loading ordnance typical of the 1400s and early 1500s. Together with the long-shanked, short armed anchor on top of the ballast mound they told us immediately that the ship was from the earliest period of Spanish exploration and discovery in the New World.
This was an exciting find! But what ship was it? Caribbean Ventures’ insistence on giving the wreck a name at this stage without the benefit of clues gained through excavation was a transparent attempt to take advantage of the average person’s ignorance of history and use the fame of Christopher Columbus to capture media attention and inflate the “value” of the remains.
After my trip to the site I wrote a report to the TCI Government in which I recommended that the site receive proper archaeological attention. Even though the chances that it might be La Pinta were vanishingly small, and the red pearls claim was absurd, it was still one of the earliest shipwrecks ever found in the Americas. Thinking that the site was under contract to be salvaged, I submitted my report and put the whole thing out of my mind.
Meanwhile, Caribbean Ventures never returned to the TCI to consummate their contract. Instead, another outfit calling itself Nomad Treasure Seekers (some of us thought “Nomad Treasure Sneakers” might be more appropriate) showed up on Grand Turk in the Fall of 1981 claiming they had “inherited” the site and its “priceless cargo of red pearls,” from the original discoverers and demanding a contract from the TCI government. I was dragged back into the fray when Chief Minister Norman Saunders asked me to fly down for a face-to-face meeting with Nomad’s leader, Roger Miklos. It was my first time to meet a real Florida treasure hunter, and I must say I was impressed. He wore a white, pressed workshirt with Pinta Recovery Team emblazoned in five colors across the left breast, a heavy gold-colored chain around his neck supporting a mounted gold-colored coin surrounded by three gold-colored sailing ships (the Pinta, Niña, and Santa Maria, of course!), gold-colored rings on every finger, a heavy stud-link gold-colored bracelet, and a diver’s watch on each wrist, both held on with bands made of coins. How could anyone not be impressed?
For me it was a disappointing meeting. I offered, on behalf of the Institute, to excavate the site, conserve and analyze all the artifacts, produce a full report and return all artifacts to the TCI Government all at no cost, which I thought was a pretty good deal. But I couldn’t compete with Nomad. Miklos promised to build a museum complex with a conservation lab on Provo, to hire 40 natives at high salaries plus “a percentage” of the take, to build new schools and bring untold good publicity and prosperity to the Islands. Funding, he assured us, was no object because he had millions in the bank that he would pour into the project. Oh yes, and he had an “in” with the National Geographic Society so there would be plenty of favorable publicity. In a nutshell, there simply wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.
Chief Minister Saunders wanted some time to think about it, and put Molasses Reef “off limits” to all would-be salvagers until a decision could be reached. It had been his hope that Nomad and I would agree to work together, but that wasn’t going to happen. At Saunders’ request I submitted a formal proposal to excavate the site on behalf of the Institute while the TCI Government deliberated what to do.

Fragments of a homemade pipe bomb

Homemade pipe bomb on Molasses Reef

In November 1981 I returned to (hopefully) sign an agreement that would let INA excavate the Molasses Reef Wreck. But (surprise!) there were problems. Nomad was back, this time with two ships and a large group of people. Saunders told me that it was now apparent Miklos was “a bad egg.” He explained that although he had given Nomad permission to “prospect” for wrecks, they did not have permission to take anything. Now he was receiving alarming reports that Nomad was picking up every artifact they could find. Gary Adkison, the marina manager on Pine Cay, called to say that he and Wayne Kafsac, the divemaster at the Prospect of Whitby Hotel on North Caicos, had just prevented Nomad from taking up the cannons lying in shallow water off Ft. George! Where were they going next? I had a strong suspicion that they were headed for Molasses Reef and volunteered to fly to the Caicos Islands to find Miklos and get him to return to Grand Turk.
Because Nomad’s last reported location was near Pine Cay, I flew there to start my search and quickly hooked up with Gary and Wayne, who were already incensed at Nomad’s audacity. In the pre-dawn chill of November 24, Gary, his wife Barney, Wayne, and I climbed into a Pine Cay 19 ft. Mako piloted by Joe Gardiner and set a course across the Caicos Bank for Molasses Reef. An hour and a half later we could make out Nomad’s two vessels in the early dawn light, peacefully at anchor on the seaward side of the reef and a big round buoy over the shipwreck site. I could not help but notice that diagonal red stripes had been painted across their bows in a clumsy effort to mimic the US Coast Guard.
At first it seemed no one was up yet, but all at once frantic activity erupted on the nearest of the two boats, a fishing trawler named Captain Jack. Her siren blared wildly as people spilled out of the deckhouse and began milling around on the deck to pull a dingy alongside. We had been spotted! Joe maneuvered us skillfully through the shallow reef up to the buoy and kept the engine running as the dingy shoved off from Captain Jack with two men on board and headed for us. As they drew closer the man in the bow raised something over his head: a mean-looking M-1 carbine assault rifle with a flash suppressor and banana clip. We looked at each other in dismay. Twelve miles from the nearest inhabited island, outnumbered, unarmed, and hemmed in by the reef to the north and Captain Jack to the south we were at a considerable disadvantage. Just how crazy were these guys? Would they really shoot us just so they could rape the site at their leisure? It had to be a bluff.
The dingy drew alongside and the man at the tiller shouted with great authority that this was a restricted area and we must leave immediately. From the corner of my eye I noticed Barney raising her camera. I told the man who I was and that the Chief Minister asked me to check up on them and the site. As he prattled on about how putting a buoy on the site made it theirs, an odd thing happened. The gunman in the bow suddenly laid his M-1 down in the bottom of the dingy and folded his arms over his chest, as if in surrender. I turned to see Barney snapping photo after photo of the confrontation. The gunman realized the tables had been turned. We now had photos of him doing a very naughty thing indeed, and they could be very damaging. I asked him to hold the M-1 up again so we could get a better shot, but he wisely declined. Disarmed by the power of the lens, no power on earth could make him pick the rifle up again.
Once the threat of being shot was neutralized, I told the men in the dingy we were going to have a look at the site and they should just go back to Captain Jack and have breakfast, which they did. Gary and I rolled over the side to free dive the site to see what Nomad had been up to. In the dim light we could see their tools and equipment scattered across the seabed. Gary shot a whole roll of film to document the fact that Nomad was flagrantly violating the ban on conducting salvage on the site.
Back on board again, we cruised over to the other ship, a large sea-going tug called Heather Glynn, where Roger Miklos was watching the morning’s little drama from a safe distance. Our sudden appearance out of nowhere, the photos we had taken documenting his shenanigans and the shrugging off of his biggest and most imposing armed crewmen had caught him unprepared and unable to do anything except bluster. The shank of a very large, very old anchor, illegally salvaged, could be seen protruding above the bulwarks. I asked Miklos where it came from. He said, “Somewhere else.” I suggested that he and I go back to Grand Turk to talk things over with Chief Minister Saunders. Miklos responded that if Saunders wanted to see him, he was welcome to come out to Molasses Reef. There being nothing else to gain by remaining on the reef, we returned to Pine Cay.
Gary immediately processed the films we shot and I flew back to Grand Turk. The next day I showed the photos to the Chief Minister and made him aware of what Nomad was doing. He immediately called the Police Commissioner, ordering him to arrest Nomad’s boats and search them for purloined artifacts. Unknown to us Nomad had already left Molasses Reef, headed for Grand Turk where they arrived the next morning.
The police searched Nomad’s boats after they docked and confiscated the giant ancient anchor but found little else. That afternoon I got a call from Mike Spillar, a local divemaster, who said he had been diving under Nomad’s boats and found the sandy seabed littered with bronze and iron nails and spikes, broken bits of ceramic and glass vessels—which explained why the police hadn’t found much on board!
The whole grand drama, which had been building to a crescendo for weeks, came to an abrupt conclusion when Nomad’s boats slipped their moorings and put to sea without notifying anyone or bothering to clear with port officials. Before I was able to conclude an agreement with the government, the INA Board of Directors called me back to Texas, ostensibly because Caribbean Ventures threatened to sue the Institute, the University, and everyone else they could think of to compensate themselves for the $100,000,000. they said they expected to make from “marketing” the shipwreck. But years later I learned that the Chairman of the Board of Directors of INA, who had insisted on pulling me out of the TCI, was a friend and great admirer of the man who headed up Caribbean Ventures.
Months passed. Nomad never returned. The original discoverers never returned either. They had been arrested for “poaching” treasure on shipwreck sites in Florida and had their hands full trying to stay out of jail. Finally, in March 1982, I reached an agreement with the TCI Government allowing us to excavate the site and take the artifacts back to Texas A&M University for cleaning, conservation and analysis at no cost to government. All artifacts and samples were to be returned to the TCI following completion of the project, which would take several years.
But when we arrived on Molasses Reef on April 6, 1982, prepared to begin excavation, a sickening sight awaited us: some time between my confrontation with Nomad at the site and our return, the site had been visited by treasure hunters again. A huge crater had been dug or blasted into the ballast mound, and many artifacts had been intentionally mutilated. The three-inch thick iron shank of the anchor had been snapped in two by the force of a blast from a homemade pipe bomb. Wooden timbers preserved beneath the ballast mound for centuries had been ripped out and left to disintegrate in the surge. We found the remains of the pipe bombs and their detonators scattered across the site.
But if the treasure hunters hoped their wanton destruction would foil our intentions, we disappointed them. Fortunately, I had made a plan of the site two years previously during my first reconnaissance of Molasses Reef, which enabled us to make sense of the chaos on the seabed. Altogether, we spent six months on Molasses Reef and thousands of hours under water. During three phases of field work spread out over four years we were assisted by many different people including Sam Forbes, Stanford Handfield, and Calvin Harvey.
Working underwater is a peculiar, but not unpleasant business. Most of the discomforts associated with performing hard manual labour on land—overheating, thirst, accumulation of grime, insect bites, sunburn and tired feet—are absent. The water medium actually assists certain tasks. Our underwater induction dredges act like vacuum cleaners, effortlessly removing sand and coral debris from the excavation area. Immersion in seawater actually reduces an object’s weight. The weight of heavy objects can be easily neutralized underwater by attaching air-filled lifting bags. Using this technique, a single diver can move a cannon or an anchor that ten men couldn’t budge if it were out of the water. Marvelous distractions abound on all sides. Expedition photographer Dennis Denton wistfully eyed the shoals of brilliantly colored fish attracted to our activity. Much later, when his films were developed, we were amused to find technical photographs of site features interspersed with single frames of angelfish, Nassau grouper, octopus, and parrotfish.
The artifact conservation and archival research took even longer, a total of eight years, but eventually we were finished with the artifacts and it was time to return them to the TCI. In 1990, concerned citizens formed the Turks & Caicos National Museum, a publicly-funded, non-profit trust fully sanctioned by, but independent of the government, and authorized to collect, preserve and exhibit objects pertaining to the cultural and natural history of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Mrs. Grethe Seim, the Museum’s Founder, donated the “Guinep House,” one of the oldest buildings on Grand Turk, to become the Museum’s home.
Rather than merely placing an anchor here and cannon there, we decided to present a coherent and complete story of the MRW project in exactly the same order as we ourselves had experienced it. To do so it was necessary to arrange the interior of the building so that visitors would pass by the exhibits in the correct order. Walls had to be put up, doorways filled in, windows converted to doors. As the exhibit grew, it eventually occupied the entire ground floor of the Museum.
When we were finished, we were satisfied that it adequately presented not only the story of the Molasses Reef Wreck, but also explained a bit about the process of maritime archaeology and the Age of Exploration and Discovery. If you want to learn more about the MRW and what we learned from it, I’ve run out of space here, so you will just have to go see it for yourself.
Telling the Molasses Reef Wreck story now is appropriate because it all happened a long time ago, and some of the lessons that should have been learned seem to have been forgotten. Sadly, “the long view” reveals that shipwreck sites all through the Islands have been pilfered and destroyed almost continuously over the past 30 years. In some cases it was done with government-issued licenses, but most of the time it has been a clandestine activity.
For us at the Museum it is disheartening to see that in spite of the example set by the Molasses Reef Wreck project, the first scientifically excavated shipwreck in the Turks & Caicos, resulting in thousands of cleaned, conserved and analyzed artifacts on display or safely stored in the Museum, the TCI Government continues to condone treasure hunting in the vain hope that it will somehow put money in the treasury.
In the Turks & Caicos Islands, treasure hunters—usually guests in the country—have not only failed to find treasure or put one red cent in the national treasury, but have disgraced themselves repeatedly. They blew up the Molasses Reef Wreck with homemade pipe bombs. Using propwash deflectors they damaged the wreck of Trouvadore, the Spanish slave ship that brought the ancestors of many Belongers to the Islands 170 years ago. In a recent auction on e-Bay someone offered to sell the location of a shipwreck site on the Caicos Bank. Why does the government continue to welcome guests like these?
Most civilized countries bordering the seas and oceans of the world now recognize that shipwrecks are an important non-renewable historical resource that should be treated with respect and used wisely in a way that will contribute to the national identity and benefit the largest number of people. How to do this is no mystery. A decade ago, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) formulated its “Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage” following scores of meetings by hundreds of delegates from virtually every nation on earth. The Convention sets forth 36 Rules of Best Practice. Governments that adopt (and enforce!) these rules can rest assured their shipwreck resources will be used wisely and beneficially, rather than squandered.

 



10 Comments

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Roger Miklos
Nov 25, 2011 16:22

Dr. Donald H. Keith should get his facts straight before he makes false accusations to further his own priorities. I have all the documentation to verify the real story of the “Pinta” salvage and architect’s plans for our proposed museum, etc. In 1979 I was contacted by Chief Minister Saunders offering me Olin Frick’s salvage lease as he had passed away. I find it strange that no mention is made in the article with reference to the archaeologist that accompanied us, Dr. Nancy Desautel and that we had two govt. officials, Inspector Lightbourne and Sergeant Garland on board at all times. In fact Inspector Lightbourne ordered Sergeant Garland to take his weapon and order Dr. Keith (undergraduate Don Keith at the time) out of the restricted waters. If you are interested in the truth, please contact me at 305 735 4989 or e-mail me your phone contact and I will phone you at my expense.
Yours sincerely,
Roger Miklos (Former Nomad Treasure Seekers)

Please respond ASAP.

J. Swanson
Jun 1, 2013 9:43

My confusion lies in the fact that Mr. Miklos was partnered with a California archaeologist, who does not appear to have a specialty in underwater cultural resource management, instead of with someone who is, in fact, an underwater archeology specialist. Ms. Desautel (now Wiley) has an interest primarily in the history and prehistory of the American West and – so it would seem – Alaska.

If there had been any attempt to provide some scientific legitimacy to the initial excavation, an underwater archeologist would have been involved from the start. And certainly, an archeological specialist in Caribbean shipwreck exploration and recovery could have been found much closer than California. Is it the case that nobody in Florida or the Caribbean or Mexico would touch this with a 10-foot pole? I guess only Mr. Miklos would know.

SRS, Ms. Desautel’s (Wiley) company, does not even list this project on their website. In terms of services offered by the company, there is a list of services to assist with compliance on all manner of US regulations governing archaeological and historic sites. It’s my guess, since if you google her name almost NOTHING comes up in conjunction with the Molasses Reef shipwreck except some archived wire reports from 1981 (I think), that while she may have accompanied you on an initial survey as you say, she likely realized early on that there was something not right about what was going on and removed herself. Was she involved in the stand-off that Dr. Keith described? If so, it would be HIGHLY unlikely that reputable archeologists would give her any credibility today, and she would be out of business.

I’m now extremely interested in her side of the story… I’d love to know why you don’t see her name affiliated with the early stages of this project, or with Nomad Treasure Seekers, with the exception of the few blips and bleeps from what appears to be one news wire article. Though I have an archeology degree, it’s been years since I’ve done or been involved in anything that is at the core, archeological. The more I read about this shipwreck, the more I want to step back from the museum world, and get back to the archeology part of things.

Kudos, Dr. Keith, for an interesting story. Maybe one day I’ll finally get to the National Museum to see this artifact that increasingly fascinates me.

Mr. Miklos, shame on you. I dealt with people like you during my years service with the government. Treasure hunters are the worst. You have absolutely NO respect for history. Just because you find something does not make it yours. You wouldn’t know truth if it smacked you in the face.

A. Thompson
Feb 7, 2014 18:24

Roger Miklos has hurt a lot of people. He is not a good man stay clear, and DON’T give him any MONEY you will not get it back.

Jon Christiansen
Jan 3, 2015 22:22

It is a shame so many people claim to know what actually took place, unless you were there,(and I was from day one), accusing the Nomad Team of anything unethical is patently false. I have the original government contract granting Roger Miklos and Nomad exclusive rights to search and document the Pinta site.
The good will and benefit to the islands economy was tremendous during our stay on island.
If we were such “bad people”, why were we so well received and in daily communications with government
officials through our onboard government monitors up and until we had located and reported the wreck site to officials.

Captain J Christiansen
M/V Heather Glen

M. Usher
Jan 29, 2015 15:38

Roger Miklos and his “son” are CROOKS! Plain and simple. He poses as a salvor, but only really succeeds in giving real salvors a very bad reputation. He rather relishes in being know as a “pirate”.

Keith Sanders
Jun 16, 2015 8:21

Fascinating! My efforts to find Mr. Miklos after his visit to UK way back in 1983 came to naught. His visit and a subsequent tour of German sources of U-Boatinformation, like the very fine Cuxhaven museum run by the late Horst Bredow came to naught.
His quest had been stimulated by a site passed on to him which was the last resting place of U 857 a boat which did not conform to the usual pattern.
As this discovery was off TCI he had contacted the relevant UK authorities. The department responsible realised the significance of the ‘find’ and the latent danger and made the boat “safe”! Before the enquirer returned with a camera team. 80 feet depth and a cliff was discovered to be just 30 feet and a sandy bottom. Obviously a considerable disturbance had occurred.
At present I am engaged on a distance learning course with Southampton University, course “Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds”.

Paul Robinson
Apr 8, 2017 21:56

Roger, Please call me ASAP. My brother and I have a 1982 Admiralty Claim, on a 1563 vessel. I am on Little Torch now. 305-699-8071

MK
May 10, 2017 14:26

What do you think about this new show on Discovery, “Cooper’s Treasure” w/ Darrell Milkos? Found Columbus fleet out there in T&C supposedly? He seems alright, though his dad does seem like a jerk(personality fits your description of him). I guess hes broke and miserable now.. karma’s a bitch

Jennifer Pennell
May 22, 2017 2:43

I love the new show. However I can’t get over Roger Darrell’s
dad. There are always two sides to a story of course. Roger seems like he has no time for his own son. I wished they had a better relationship . They could be doing this adventure
together. Wouldn’t that be awesome! Making memories!

CJ
May 23, 2017 0:13

It is such a shame that the so-called government for the people are so sanctimonious regarding the treasures of the deep that no one, and I mean no one, except for the fishes have seen for centuries. When you have the level of electronic technology that currently exists, and in part recovered from Gordon Cooper as well, NASA, I mean NASA technology to use to locate these findings, why not allow those with passion, means, and human understanding to recover them for posterity or for prosperity? It shouldn’t be left to those who think that recovery from the bottom of the sea is disassembling Mt. Vernon. Do you think for one moment that George Washington would have left Spanish gold on the bottom of the Potomac? Get real people. In this life only one commodity is truly limited and it is time. This is being wasted by bureaucracy while the opportunity exists to reveal what we all would love to see. Living relatives of those who perished on the Titanic had some validity not wanting to disturb remains of their kin, but artifacts aren’t people only reminders of them. They should have salvaged every item possible for museums or owners. No one can take it with them, it is just passing through from one generation to another. How would you know what you were missing if it isn’t brought up from the deeps? I for resurrection and if Darrel Miklos was trusted by Gordon Cooper, then so be it.

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