Just off the coast of Sri Lanka, some anglers pulled up more than a few fish when they cast their nets into the Indian Ocean. They found treasure, but not of the shiny and gold variety. It was treasure of the we better call in some historians variety.
Archaeologists and historians rushed to the site, hoping their suspicions would be confirmed true. If their hunches were right, they were about to fill in the gaps on a historical mystery experts had been trying to figure out for hundreds of years.
For the experts, that a ship had sunk in this particular spot off the Sri Lankan coast was no great surprise. After all, the harbor where this wreck was initially found was a historical hot spot.
Kuni Tanahashi / New York Times
Godavaya is a small fishing village located off the coast of Sri Lanka, a country situated on the Indian Ocean and near the tip of India. Incredibly, the area has been inhabited by human beings for an estimated 7,000 years.
In 2008, German archaeologist Oliver Kessler found a human skeleton dating back to 3,000-5,000 B.C. in an abandoned quarry. It was found with tools made of stone and animal bone, which offered a greater picture of life at the time.
This landmark discovery was just one of the reasons that made the spot so tantalizing to historians. Another? The settlement was situated between the Walawe River and the Indian Ocean, making it at one time an extremely influential port.
Ships from the West would come to the Godavaya port and trade with ships from China that were carrying silk. Practically drooling over the potential, a team of archaeologists and historians searched the waters around the ancient port for artifacts.
But when Deborah Carlson, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, first saw the fisherman-found shipwreck in 2010, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “I was quite skeptical when I first saw this wreck. I thought there’s no way this thing is ancient,” she explained.
The remains of the ship from were 110 feet below the surface, but what stood out more than the structure of the old vessel was its condition. “Everything’s pretty broken,” said Deborah Carlson.
The Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka
See, instead of a traditional hull, the former ship is a muddled mess of concrete and metal bars, aged from thousands of years underwater. The contents of the ship had spilled onto the floor of the ocean.
Maritime Archaeology Institute
So, she and her team took samples of the wood from the wreck and tested them to get an accurate age — she was floored by the results. Sure enough, the ruins of the ship dated all the way back to the first century A.D.
University of Arizona
In fact, they determined their find to be the oldest shipwreck in the entirety of the Indian Ocean! Eager to find out more, scuba divers participated in a months-long excavation of the site.
Archaeologists hoped this ship and its contents would fill in historical gaps for researchers regarding ancient trade routes from Asia to Rome. After all, it wasn’t every day experts got their hands on a ship this old in these waters.
Carlson admitted they likely wouldn’t find one perfect piece of evidence to prove that this ship was heading to Rome, but they hoped the goods found on board might create greater context surrounding this historical narrative.
Navy Heritage Museum
But because the artifacts were so far underwater and had been for many thousands of years, divers practiced the utmost care when handling the excavation. So far, their many underwater missions yielded some very impressive artifacts.
One item found by the experts was a grinding stone, common in many Buddhist monuments — this boded well for the theory that this ship was trading with the Chinese. But this wasn’t the only find.
Institute of Nautical Archaeology
Experts also pulled copper pots and ceramic vessels from the ocean floor. If all went well, scientists planned to recover ancient biological material from the insides — pollen, sediment, that kind of stuff.
This organic material would bring insight on what time of year the ship went down, which would be even more valuable information in determining trade routs and historical sailing habits.
But besides the actual artifacts they uncovered, Carlson and her team used another method to learn everything they could about the remains of this ancient wreck: they brought a chunk of the ocean floor up to the surface.
Then sorted through the ocean floor sample, hoping to find any smaller valuables such as coins or personal items. They knew what kinds of historical breakthroughs were at stake of they persevered.
Among the smaller items found were some fragments of metal jars, bowls, and even a flask. But it was a curious metal ring that caught the attention of the divers.
Photo: R. Muthucumarana
See, they believed the “ring” had actually been part of a shield before. And that discovery signified something huge — if there had been weapons on board, there must have been something valuable worth protecting. But what? Or who?
All they needed to do was look to the Kronan, the largest ship ever built for the Swedish navy. It served as the flagship vessel when it was completed in 1672, and it took seven years to construct. Once it was finished, it sailed the seas like a multi-masted beast.
The ship’s luck ran out in 1676. During a maritime battle, the Kronan hit rough waters and capsized while making a sharp turn. The gunpowder on board ignited and that was that.
For three hundred years, the Kronan sat peacefully at the bottom of the ocean and housed all sorts of aquatic life. Would anyone ever discover its whereabouts and gather the artifacts inside?
Amazingly, in 1980, an amateur researcher named Anders Franzen discovered the shipwreck’s location. The Swedish government sponsored yearly archaeological dives to collect any lost artifacts. What was hidden in the ship for so many years?
The divers who went on the expeditions were in awe. It was obvious the ship was used for war. Openings in the vessel’s sides had old rusted cannons protruding out.
After a thorough search of the ship, it was easy to picture what the massive structure looked like sailing the high seas. There were dozens of small rooms for housing the men aboard, and each one was equipped with weaponry.
The divers had special equipment used to help clear the sand and mud that accumulated on all the surface areas. Buried underneath was a trove of ancient treasures…
Whatever the divers recovered from the wreck was going straight into the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden. The museum had an entire Kronan exhibit ready for unveiling once they excavated the items.
The dive teams found an abundance of old rifles and firearms. The weapons revealed fascinating information about seventeenth-century warfare. Information that experts may not have even known.
After the guns were excavated, researchers cleaned off the grime and rust so they looked new. They now sit on display at the Kalmar Museum. But, firearms weren’t the only amazing things found…
They also found objects that spoke more to everyday life in the 1600s, like musical instruments, including violins and trumpets. The people on board the ship needed forms of entertainment, and playing tunes certainly helped pass the time at sea.
One of the expeditions came across this pristine gold ring. Can you believe after three hundred years at the bottom of the ocean the gem inside still has a sparkle to it? This looks like something straight out of a Tiffany’s display case.
When the Kronan sank, it was carrying loads of gold and silver coins, and the divers found an abundance of them among the rubble. It was Sweden’s largest coin discovery ever, with coins minted in Sweden, Egypt, Syria, and even Turkey!
One of the most important things they found was a wooden plaque with the name of the ship scrawled across it. It may not have been worth as much as the gold and silver, but this plaque was an intact part of history, and equally as important as everything else.
The Kalmar County Museum was more than ecstatic to display all of Kronan’s lost treasure. However, they had no idea that the most interesting item was yet to be found…
Just when researchers thought they unearthed nearly everything of importance, one of them came across this black tin jar nestled in the mud – and it was heavy. More gold and silver coins, perhaps?
Twitter / @SarahWardAU
When scientists finally pried open the can, they were overwhelmed by a pungent smell. They stared at the grayish lump of mush and suddenly it hit them. It was some kind of preserved cheese product!
They described the smell like a mix of yeast and Roquefort cheese. During the era when the Kronan was built, cheese was a real status symbol. It separated the rich from the poor. In this case, however, the cheese was well past its prime.
No one intended to add this Kronan cheese to a gourmet cheese plate anytime soon, but just the fact it was still in relatively good condition stunned everyone. Where’s Andrew Zimmern when you need him? He’d probably give this a taste!
The Kronan cheese sits on display at the museum along with the rest of the findings. Since the ship was discovered in 1980, diving teams have already collected over 30,000 artifacts! The Kronan discover proves that sometimes great men find shipwrecks, but other times great shipwrecks find men…
The coast of California is no stranger to significant storms, specifically El Niños—the unusually warm systems that move over the area in late December. Even still, the damage from one particularly massive system that battered the coast of Coronado, California, in 2016 was especially devastating.
The residents of Coronado were quick to make their way back outside after the rains and winds passed. They were ready to clean up their town, but they certainly were not prepared for what they’d find there…
When people reached South Coronado Beach, they noticed something very unusual protruding from the sandy shore. It was a massive shape of some kind, and it clearly wasn’t part of a reef. What the heck was it?
No one was quite sure what the strange formation was, but everyone was curious enough to want to get a closer look. Many residents had theories, but the truth would be even wilder…
It would take more work to find out what this powerful storm had unearthed. Luckily, as the tide continued to wash the surrounding sand away, the answer was revealed…
It was an enormous shipwreck! Everyone was in awe when they finally realized what the structure was. How amazing is it that a ship that enormous had been lying just beneath their feet all along?
This storm had to be really intense in order to uncover something the size of a city block. As the surface of the ocean increases in temperature—and the warm air meets much colder air in the sky—it causes intense wind and rain.
Any time an El Niño storm hits a populous area, it typically causes a hefty amount of damage. Usually, the best way to prepare is byboarding up windows and doors or simply evacuating the area altogether.
Obviously, the intensity of El Niño’s winds and rain regularly tossed around small boats. The discovery on South Coronado Beach, however, was completely different. This was no small boat—this thing was seriously huge!
Now that the enormous vessel was uncovered, everyone wanted to know where exactly it had come from. On top of that, what was it used for when it was a fully-functioning ship sailing the high seas?
As it turned out, the history of the ship was fascinating. Named the SS Monte Carlo, the 300-foot vessel was built in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1921. It was one of the few concrete and iron ships built after World War I.
The ship was the property of the United States Quartermaster Corps until 1923 when it was sold to the Associated Oil Company of San Francisco. This company then sold it to two actual mobsters, Ed Turner and Martin Schouwiler, in the early 1930s.
The two men had hoped to turn their new property into a “sin ship” during Prohibition. It was to be anchored three miles off the coast of Coronado Beach in international waters, so gambling, prostitution, and alcohol were all technically legal onboard… or so they hoped.
Unsurprisingly, the ship became incredibly popular. Visitors from all around came to indulge in the illegal activities it offered. The ship was by no means the first “sin ship” in existence, but it was the largest. In its prime, it would host upwards of 15,000 gamblers a week!
It’s estimated that the ship also raked in nearly $3 million a year, which by today’s standards is nearly $52 million! However, on New Year’s Day in 1937, a massive storm set the ship adrift, and it eventually ran aground on the shores of South Coronado Beach.
Over the next several years, the remains of the ship were slowly buried underneath the sand. That is, until the 2016 El Niño, which was strong enough to remove the sand and reveal the ancient piece of history once more.
With a little help of the incoming and outgoing tide, the sand slowly revealed more and more of this former “sin ship.” It didn’t take long before the residents of Coronado could make out the entire thing.
Once people could see the entire vessel, word of the discovery spread rapidly around the area. Everyone wanted to explore this real-life shipwreck for themselves! Can you blame them?
As fascinating as the discovery was, visitors needed to be extremely careful around the remains. Because the ship was built with concrete and iron, erosion had caused the frame to develop extremely sharp edges. Albeit dangerous, exploring it might be worth it…
Some rumors suggested that upwards of $150,000 worth of gold and silver coins were still on board. Even if it was just a rumor, the SS Monte Carlo remains a treasure in its own right!