So where’s the gold?

Now that the findings of the site have been made public, I have been seeing and hearing quite frequently one of the most common questions asked to archaeologists. It is a question that makes us all cringe, ranging right up there with ‘find any dinosaur bones yet?’. I want to take a few minutes to clarify this now. This question is of course, ‘where’s the gold?’

The short answer to this question is, there isn’t any. This site in particular is very low on artifact finds as it was an abandoned vessel, rather than one lost in a wrecking event. Anything of value would have been removed: from the cargo, to the sails, to the metals used to hold parts of the ship together.

In the 17th-century Chesapeake, there would be little reason for any gold to be present. The Virginia Company of London founded the Jamestown colony to search for gold, despite the Spanish having already visited and determining that there were not any precious metals. Rather than finding gold though, the Virginia colonists found the ‘Golden Leaf.’ Tobacco quickly became the most important crop in the New World, and fortunes were made on it. But the fortunes were not chests filled with gold coins. Tobacco actually became the currency of the region. People would settle debts with tobacco, probate inventories value goods in pounds of tobacco, and the colonists would buy goods from England with the tobacco they shipped overseas. It was really more of a credit system. Colonists would grow their tobacco, send it to a merchant in England, and include a shopping list. The merchant would then send back the goods with the ships on the following year, which more often than not equaled or exceeded the value of tobacco sent in previous years.

Aside from this, the real value of any archaeological site lies in the information it carries, rather than the neat stuff that it may contain. The ship loses its intellectual value as items are removed from it. This is the main point of contention between archaeologists and treasure hunters. Without context, a find has no meaning. As treasure hunters remove goods from a site, the entire site loses its context, and the important questions that it could answer are gone, all for the sake of someone placing a conversation piece on their mantel. I realize that the allure of gold and riches entices many to want to venture out onto historic wrecks, searching for items of value, but when this is done, the information is lost, and this information is worth more than its weight in gold.


About smrarchaeology

Scott Tucker is an historical and maritime archaeologist from Hagerstown, MD. Currently, he is working on his doctoral research into early English merchant trade in the Chesapeake region at the University of Southampton, UK, as a member of the Centre for Maritime Archaeology. He is also a visiting graduate researcher at the Historic St. Mary's City Museum. View all posts by smrarchaeology

3 responses to “So where’s the gold?

  • Mark spence

    I’d like to know what if any impact of the new “treasure hunting” TV shows that seem to be very popular these days. Have you seen more interest positive, negative or neutral?

    Thanks for updates

  • smrarchaeology

    Thanks for the question, Mark. I would have to say that overall, these shows have had a negative impact. I live overseas where I don’t have access to these programs, but from the response I have seen, particularly from the metal detecting shows on Spike and NatGeo, the shows do little to promote responsible practices within the metal detecting community. NatGeo did, I believe, change their show’s formatting after the outcry from the archaeological community, but Spike was unconcerned.
    As far as Wreck Detectives, and similar shows, these are certainly of no assistance to us. While it does help spark the interest of the public, it sends the wrong message and adds confusion over the roles of professional archaeologist. When people like Greg Stemm and his cronies from Odyssey are on Discovery Channel claiming to be archaeologists, and yet only searching for precious cargoes without regard to their historical context, it hurts the entire perception of the archaeological community.

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