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My Quest Against Treasure Hunting

by Paulo Monteiro, the Azores

I would like to add the story of my life, just for fun and enlightenment of all those interested in underwater archaeology. This way, I might be able to explain why I am a zealot of die-hard archaeology and why all treasure hunters, commercial salvors are my nemesis, in what regards the underwater heritage. In this I go, hand in hand, with Filipe Castro, the ayatollah.

Act I

In 1970, the same year I was born, the Portuguese Government passed down the law 416/70. A very short bill, this law basically said that all wrecks older than 5 years were owned by the State and that any action that regarded them would have to be cleared by the Portuguese Navy.

Now, the Portuguese Navy was getting all worked up in the three African war fronts (Angola, Guinea and Mozambique) in our own Vietnam, and the Portuguese state was being run by the oldest European dictatorship, so wrecks were not really Portugal’s foremost priority. Profiting from this, a very ingenious Briton, Sydney Wygnall, went buddy-buddy with the then Director of Angra Museum, in Terceira Island, Azores, Baptista de Lima, and told him that he wanted to search for the wreck of the Revenge, the famous ship from Elizabethan Navy, bla, bla, that he would bring along TV crews, bla bla, that Terceira would be famous, bla, bla.

And he got it.

In 1972, the Portuguese Navy authorised the first official underwater survey in Portuguese waters. Wignall went to Terceira for 6 months, heavy gear and all and went everyday in the water to search for the Revenge and any Spanish galleon that might appear in the way. Unfortunately for him, one month later, a converted English Navy boat came to Terceira, carrying onboard another English team of treasure hunters. Mike Stewart and John Grattan, from the British Navy and former partners of Wignall had dropped by, to share the booty. Wignall went head over wheels and some shots were even exchanged, and the Portuguese police had to intervene. Grattan made claim to 3 wrecks, containing more than a million sterling pounds worth of silver.

By then, the Portuguese local divers started to complain that, and I quote, "We looked like innocent babies plundering vis-à-vis the British". And it was true: anything lying on the surface, especially in Angra bay, was ransacked – gold chains, silver coins, bronze cannons, everything went to freighters hovering in the island waters, by the covert of the night. When all this was found, the Museum kicked out everybody from the island. Results: a 4.30 meter long culverin was deposited at the museum, a huge quantity of iron cannons recovered from God-knows-where were dropped in the same place are all the visible remains of the 1972 events. No records, no papers, no nothing survives.

End of act one.

Act II

In 1974, the Portuguese had their revolution, on the 25th of April. Coincidentally, two months later, profiting from the chaos, Robert Stenuit went to Porto Santo Island, Madeira Archipelago, and found the remains of the Slot ter Hooge, a VOC ship wrecked there. He dug a big hole and recovered some 100-plus silver bars. All that is left are 3 of those bars in a Porto Santo Museum and a glossy article in the National Geographic Magazine.

End of act two.


In 1983, (treasure hunter) Robert Marx approaches the Regional Government and, by talking to the right people, manages to have salvage law passed down by the local parliament. Basically, all salvage companies could come down to the Azores, survey and excavate what they would like and the government would keep half of all recovered.

Lisbon then contested the law and the Constitutional Court declared the law illegal. Ten years passed and Marx got smart. Why go to the Angels, when you can speak to God himself. That's what he did. So, Marx knocked on the door of the Portuguese Secretary of Culture, Pedro Santana Lopes, and stated his arguments:

  1. Portugal and the Azores were fantastically rich in shipwrecks. (What shipwrecks? Rich in what sense? Where were they? Questions that nobody asked.)
  2. Portugal was too poor a country to involve itself on the underwater archaeology business, especially when it involved deep-water recoveries (How much money was involved? Why go for deep wrecks? Again, more questions that nobody raised.)
  3. Every day, divers loot and destroy all wrecks accessible to them (Again, what wrecks? Regarding the small community of divers in Portugal, how much was the extent of that looting?)
  4. He, Marx, was the only one capable of having a million dollar submarine driven to the deep, to recover an intact Portuguese carvel, the very one that managed to promote the Portuguese Empire, to raise it and to display it, inside an aquarium, in EXPO 98 (I refrain from commenting this).

And the law 289/93 was passed. Was it because Marx had, as his personal lawyer for Portugal, Rui Gomes da Silva, the legislator that had written the very same law? It was a big joke. So an executive commission was created. Marques Guedes, a maritime law professor was the president and he also was a personal friend of Marx.

In 1994, a bunch of companies had applied to concessions, all over the Azores and Portugal: Robert Marx, Robert Stenuit, Arqueonautas, Seahawk, Bob Cembrola, Jack Kelly, New Era, Graham Hawkes and some minor players.

So, that’s when I, a humble teacher from Terceira, read in the local newspaper that a Mr. Robert Marx was coming down to Angra to, I quote, "harvest some of the gold and silver, lost by the Portuguese and Spanish galleon wrecks, and to deliver some of that bullion to the Azoreans".

Robert Marx, I asked, who is this guy?

A month earlier, I had, as a diver, reported the find of a nucleus of 3 iron cannons to the local museum. It was decided then to create a task force to search for, research and document historical wrecks in the Azores. By then, we were at zero level of information, regarding any knowledge of underwater archaeology, treasure hunting or whatever.

Then, a click happened. I found out, in the local library (and this was a miracle, I can assure you, the Azores are pretty much out in their own slow, quiet, retarded world) the complete two-book report on the Padre Island wreck. That was when I found out that even cockroaches are important in archaeology, that a gold bar not more valuable than proper historical research, that gold sometimes is more of a nuisance than a nice artefact to have sitting at the bottom of the sea.

So, I’ll be forever grateful to Barto Arnold and all the good people that wrote those books for – to quote someone famous – showing me the logical path of truth.

Anyhow, this all happened in November 1994. I started around completely lost, so I tried to see if anyone was working in underwater archaeology in Portugal. It turned out that a small bunch of people, associated with the Portuguese National Archaeology Museum was doing some work, since 1985. They had formed a small, understaffed, underpaid, mostly volunteer and I will do it over the weekend team.

So, unaware of what I was about to uncover, I knocked at the door of the National Museum's director, Francisco Alves and him, not knowing me from anywhere, opened his doors and archives to a perfect stranger.

That was when I found out that treasure hunting was, indeed, a world of its own, with cloak and dagger tricks, lobbying interests and dark activities hidden to the common mortal.

I submerged in all the newspaper clippings and books, all over my X-mas vacations of 1994. And I got greedy. For the next 2 years, I searched, I swapped, I begged for more material, more clippings, more reports, more personal letters, more books. All that material served to compile a huge personal index, a Dark versus White archive, where most of you, active people, are indexed, be it treasure hunters or archaeologists.

And interesting patterns emerged out of it. Not knowing the people involved in the underwater field, and having no one knowledgeable to discuss names with, I had to rely on the work that people had done. So, if anyone had ever associated with Marx, it was the most perfect way to enter the black list.

That’s how Greg Stemm and Seahawk ended on the wrong side of the list. If any archaeologist had associated with treasure hunters, lending them credibility, they would end up like Duncan Mathewson, on the dark side of the moon. And I couldn't care less about how good their work was or how much they had accomplished, it is (and in the end, it will always be) a question of ETHICS.

So, I discovered that the Rebikoff Foundation, working from Fayal Island at the time, with ROV and a submersible had associated with the Real Eight Company, owned by Kip Wagner and directed by Bob Marx, in 1972. One more for scrap. Now, they can't even get a permit to swim around the pool. I applied, to all the candidates, an old Portuguese saying "Tell me with whom you hang around, I will tell you who you are". I know that things are not always white and black, most are even grey, but heck, what can you do, all alone and in a Mexican stand-off?

And a Mexican stand-off, it was. Because, we're studying each other. The contenders weren't getting anywhere. On the red corner we had Marx and his connections, all the Portuguese navy admirals, the Portuguese heir to the Crown throne, two major Portuguese banks, a German financial institute, some major salvage corporations, the Portuguese guru of maritime law, the secretary of culture, the conservative party (then in majority and in power), the prime minister, the crème de la crème of the Portuguese jet set and nobility, Margaret Rule, John Grattan, the leading Portuguese oceanographer and a couple of minor players.

On the blue corner, there was Francisco Alves, Jean-Yves Blot, me, the Angra Museum, Filipe Castro, some good people from the navy, a couple of divers and people associated with Ocidente, an association from Peniche (like Francisco Oliveira), people from Arqueonautica Centro de Estudos... just a handful of people, really. It was a no-win situation, for us. After all, the law was already in effect.

But I went to the Cultural Director from the Azorean Government and I was such a zealot that he was convinced. And the Azores fought back.

And we went to every newspaper, every TV channel, and every local radio, to everyone patient enough to hear us. And we showed them pictures of Marx, with a Thompson machine gun, aboard his boat, the famous 'macho' stand of the successful treasure hunter. We showed them all the accusations against Marx, a hot trail of scams and corruption and plunder in Brazil, France, Bermuda, and Spain. We showed them how bad he was and we were, with his unknown help, very good at it.

We proved that the Arqueonautas, SA, had hired the same John Grattan of the Terceira 1972 famous shooting event as an operational director, even though they had the so famous Margaret Rule as an invited archaeologist. We showed Portugal how Marx had the legislator as his personal lawyer. We told everything. And we gave thanks to God that treasure hunters had sold us the very rope that we were now using to hang them.

And we didn’t stop in Portugal. We went to the New York Times, to the UNESCO, to all the credible institutions all over the world and we cried ’murder’. We told them that the Portuguese underwater heritage was in danger. And they believed us. And the government was afraid to go on, because the voice of too many people was adamant and was showing that we were no longer a third world country.

And we did better:

We went to every archive, to every document available and we started a list of shipwrecks. Now, we knew what we were talking about. So, when Marx came to us and did his monologue of how good he was, and how he had all the Sonars and Subs capable of reaching 2 kms deep, I laughed and asked him "why do you want, then, to go and search in Angra Bay, that is only 60 meters deep?"

And then he said that he also wanted to go and search for the 'Chagas', the richest wreck in the whole wide world, and I laughed again and told him that if we wanted to search for a ship that blew up in a thousand pieces, in a 1,5 km deep sea, in a million square miles area, then by all means he could be my guest. And then he got mad, and red and angry and he blew up, like ol' Bob Marx so cuddly knows how to do, and he told me, and I quote, "You don’t own the ocean. I have enough money to buy this f*****g island and kick you out of here" and I replied "Although a flea cannot stop a train, it can cause a lot of itch to its driver".

And so it went. They tried to bribe me, they bodily threatened me (and Filipe, and the Cultural Director for the Azorean Government, for that matter), they managed to have Alves fired as the National Museum director (they even tried to legally sue him into silence), but the tide was turning. Because, everybody knew what it was all about. It was about investors, gold, silver and pearls. It was about influence and knowledge.

And then we went to the political opposition that used our arguments to fight the government. And then they won the 1995 elections! Oh, God, and they won with my vote. It was the best of times.

But they tried to kick back and they tried to give the concessions on the last day of power, but we pulled every string, we went directly to the new prime minister and had the new minister of Culture break down their meeting and suspend the whole process. And one year latter, a new law, a proper law was passed. So bye bye, treasure hunters, go back to Florida and the more than ransacked 1733 fleet wrecks, you’ll always be persona non grata in Portugal, that's what we said. As for the Azores, nothing pleases me more than refusing permit requests. I’ve done that about a dozen times since 1996, and it thrills me every time I do it.

So, in the end, it is always better to have someone to teach us how to fish, than it is to have someone throw us a fish, regarding that, for every fish that we would get, a dozen more would go away. I will always cherish Bob Marx quote, in the Jean Michel Eriau book "Le tresor des Homards Verts", stating that, underwater, the diver is his own boss, he takes what he wants and gives to the surface guys, what is less valuable.

Was it worth it?

Well, in 4 years we’ve got two complete underwater teams, both in mainland Portugal and in the Azores, fully equipped. We’ve excavated in the mainland 5 new wrecks, we’ve organized an International Symposium on Underwater Archaeology, Filipe is now taking a PhD in Nautical Archaeology at INA, Texas and I’ll be following his steps next year.

In the Azores, two INA surveys have been made, 2 wrecks have been fully excavated, while 9 more have been identified and researched. It has been a slow process, some mistakes have been undoubtedly made on the way, but I can assure you that we are better off.

Deep wrecks, NR-1, Nautile, JIM suits?

– What for, if 90% of all the Azorean wrecks are no deeper than 40 meters?

And the best of not having a for-profit policy, is that now we can excavate the 5000-plus wrecks in the mainland, Azores and Madeira that were not carrying treasure on board. If we would be looking for silver, not even a single Roman wreck, nor Angra D or C, would have been excavated.

In compensation, we have Angra B, a 5 meter deep Spanish wreck inside Angra Bay, still sealed at ballast level, from where dozens of silver doubloons and gold rings have appeared, in the survey an monitoring trips we conduct there.

Are we going to excavate it and recover all that treasure?

– No, we are not.

We will wait for a better time when we have the right people and a fully strategy all laid out. If we can’t have it in my life span, hell, it can wait – after all, it has been there for almost five centuries.

There, I’ve vented and now you all know that I will always be a guerrilla warrior at heart.

Paulo Monteiro, 1998
underwater archaeologist on the Azores

Mr Monteiro is active at the Centro de Arqueologia Subaquática dos Açores (CASA).

Published December 1998. Originally published on the Sub-Arch electronic conference. If you wish to participate in the debate regarding commercial interests versus underwater archaeology, join an electronic conference.

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