Right column
You are here:
  1. Home
  2. Research
  3. Projects of the Museum
  4. Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes


Proyecto Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes

UNESCO awards Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes archaeological project the international 'Best Practice' distinction

  • The decision was taken at the 7th Assembly of States Parties to the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage held in Paris on 21 June 2019

UNESCO has awarded the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes archaeological research project its 'best practice' label, which recognises initiatives undertaken by member countries to promote the protection, dissemination and awareness of underwater cultural heritage.

The recovery of the looted materials from the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes is the first case in which a court has ruled in favour of a state claiming protection of its underwater cultural heritage against a treasure-hunting company. In this case, which took place between 2007 and 2012, the participation of different institutions, coordinated by the Ministry of Culture and Sport, was key, which made possible the return of the 14 tonnes of cargo looted by the company Odyssey. After its return, the archaeological materials were shared with the public in the travelling exhibition 'The Last Voyage of the Frigate Mercedes'. In addition, at the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology (ARQVA), two showcases were added to the permanent exhibition to display the frigate's cultural property.

Once the material looted from the shipwreck had been legally recovered, the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology carried out a scientific recovery project through three archaeological campaigns on the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes shipwreck in 2015, 2016 and 2017, with the collaboration of the Spanish Institute of Oceanography and the Spanish Navy. These campaigns have represented milestones in the history of underwater archaeology, both for the depth (more than 1,100 m) at which the excavations were carried out and for their scientific meticulousness. The work allowed us to recover small objects such as forks and spoons, as well as two large 16th-century culverins weighing around 3 tonnes. Some of the recovered objects were exhibited in a temporary exhibition that took place in autumn 2018 under the title "Ciencia frente a expolio"

Excavation campaigns’

3rd Campaign: August 2017

The expedition, organised by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport in collaboration with the Spanish Council of Scientific Research (CSIC), the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) - organisations dependent on the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness - and the Spanish Navy, has also made it possible to recover other pieces of exceptional documentary interest, such as a bronze tap, a copper plate perforated as a ventilation grille and three bronze rollers with wood residue that has yet to be analysed.

The whole operation of recovering the pieces has been carried out according to the criteria of their uniqueness, as well as the information they can provide about life on board the frigate. The two culverins were specifically mentioned in the cargo manifest of the frigate Mercedes, which is now held by the General Archives of the Indies (Seville).

The archaeological campaign has, in turn, fulfilled the goal of expanding knowledge of the shipwreck, mainly the state of preservation of the materials and how they have changed over time; recording the dispersion of the frigate's remains, continuing the positioning of all the archaeological remains and making progress in the interpretation and analysis of the ship.

In this regard, extensive areas to the east and north-west of the shipwreck have been surveyed with side-scan sonar, and bathymetry and bottom drilling studies have been carried out, enabling the mapping of the site area to be completed.

Imagen batimétrica del yacimiento

Complex recovery operation with the unmanned underwater vehicle ROV LIROPUS

The Spanish Oceanographic Institute's unmanned underwater vehicle ROV LIROPUS, installed on the oceanographic research vessel 'Sarmiento de Gamboa', managed by the CSIC through the Marine Technology Unit (UTM), was used to recover the culverins and other artefacts. In addition to the substantial weight of the bronze culverins, which weigh approximately 2 tonnes each, the other major challenge they faced was their dimensions.

The recovery manoeuvre had been prepared in advance by selecting lightweight synthetic ropes with very high mechanical traction strength; these could be lashed to both ends of the cannons, making it possible to hoist them to the surface. As the ocean bottom was composed of very soft, clay-rich sediments, the recovery was complicated by the additional effort needed to lift the cannons off the bottom.

A water-pumping lance had also been designed and fitted to one of the titanium arms of the ROV LIROPUS unmanned underwater vehicle; this was to clean the culverins and prepare them for the recovery manoeuvre without harming them or impacting the environment.

Santa Bárbara and Santa Rufina, two unique culverins

The following information is known about the two large Renaissance culverins recovered from the wreck:

Santa Bárbara. Dated 1586. Made of bronze, this cannon measures 4.30 metres and weighs approximately 2 tonnes. It was commissioned in 1586 by Fernando de Torres y Portugal, Count of Villar Don Pardo and Viceroy of Peru between 1585 and 1589. The palace of this viceroy can still be seen in the city of Jaén, where it was converted in 1986-88 into the Museum of Popular Art and Traditions. It is an exceptional piece which, moreover, documents a little-known viceroy who, after his term of office ended, was subjected to unjust slander campaigns by the Inquisition, which he had confronted. It presents numerous decorative fields in relief formed by mythological borders dedicated to Abundance, barracks commissioned by the Count of Villar, the coat of arms of Castile and Leon, the name of the cannon (Santa Barbara), and the name of the craftsman who cast it: Bernardino de Tejeda. It has two dolphin handles that are repeated on the butt of the barrel.

Santa Rufina. Dated 1601. Made of bronze, this is 3.80 metres in length and weighs a little over 2 tonnes. It was commissioned by Luis de Velasco y Castilla, viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) and, from 1595 to 1603, of Peru. In both positions he worked to improve the living conditions of Indigenous people. It has several decorative fields in relief, a quarter with the family coat of arms of Luis de Velasco, the coat of arms of Castile and León, the name of the cannon (Santa Rufina), and the name of the craftsman who cast it: Bernardino de Tejeda. All this information makes both pieces an exceptional historical artefact for learning more about the great Spanish foundry artisans of the 16th century.

Limpieza culebrina Pulse para ampliar
Depositando la culebrina en su caja Pulse para ampliar
Izado de una de las culebrinas al barco Pulse para ampliar
Izado de la culebrina al barco

International collaboration and cooperation

This expedition followed the parameters of the UNESCO International Convention on Underwater Heritage, based on institutional cooperation at a national and international level.

It should be noted that technicians from the Ministries of Culture from Portugal and Mexico have participated as observers in the meeting, since international collaboration in the protection of underwater heritage is a case of best practice for Spain.

The success of the three expeditions in 2015, 2016 and 2017 is a good example of Spain's scientific and technological capacity to protect underwater heritage, even in the most complex marine environments. To date, no country has ever managed to carry out a systematic archaeological excavation of a shipwreck at a depth of less than 100 metres, and no country has ever managed to recover such heavy, bulky or small artefacts. In both cases, technology and methodology have been used that is extremely careful with the heritage items.

On another front, the excavation has also served as a warning shot to the big treasure-hunting companies that up to now have been the exclusive owners of deep-sea shipwrecks, based on their high technological capacity.

Work has already begun on the cleaning, desalination, preservation and study of the recovered remains. It is expected that all the pieces, together with those recovered in the expeditions carried out in 2015 and 2016 at the Las Mercedes shipwreck site, will be incorporated into the permanent exhibition of the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology (ARQUA) in Cartagena in approximately 2 years.

Roldanas del pecio antes de extraerse Pulse para ampliar
Obús de bronce en el momento de ser gazado para su recuperación Pulse para ampliar

2nd campaign

Once again organized again by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, in collaboration with the Spanish Institute of Oceanography and the Spanish Navy.

On this occasion 34 objects have been recovered, among them: two candlesticks, eight plates, a large fountain, several forks and spoons, all of silver, a gold mallet, which complements the pest removed in the previous year's campaign and several Sets of a few coins.

All these elements are detailed in the Cargo Manifestos of the frigate that are preserved in the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, for which it is once again endorsed its belonging in the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. The objects have been extracted with the maximum security measures and have been transferred to the National Museum of Underwater Archeology to begin the process of consolidation and restoration, according to each case.

The objectives of this new project, among others, have been to document the current state of the remains of the wreck and the conditions in which the whole extension of the archaeological site is located; Positionate all the remains that remains on the site ; to clean those parts of the wreck that are of greater scientific interest to extend the knowledge of the wreck and to document as much as possible the operations that could have been carried out by the plunder of the company Odyssey, distinguishing them from the phenomenon of the sinking of the frigate in 1804.

dfgas Pulse para ampliar
gd Pulse para ampliar
dsd Pulse para ampliar
fgsd Pulse para ampliar

1st campaign

The scientific expedition to the wreck Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, was organized by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, in collaboration with the Spanish Institute of Oceanography and the Spanish Navy.

It constitutes the first underwater excavation to more than one thousand and a hundred meters of depth realized by a Member State of the European Union. It is also the first archaeological campaign made by our country to know the situation in which the wreck is, after winning the judicial litigation developed after the plunder carried out by the treasurehunter company Odyssey.

After previous preparatory work, on August 14, the ship 'Ángeles Alvariño' departed from the port of Vigo. After stopping in Rota (Cadiz) to pick up the rest of the team of scientists and technicians who have made this pioneering archaeological campaign for our country, the campaign started. The team, led by the director of the National Museum of Underwater Archeology , Dr. Ivan Negueruela, has been staffed by this Museum, the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, the Naval Museum of the Spanish Armada, experts in the management of R.O.V. (Remote Operated Vehicle), as well as a film crew, who will produce a documentary to spread the research.

Throughout the week that the campaign lasted, an oceanographic ('bathymetric') map was made ,which it has made possible to measure the variables that could affect the conservation of the wreck: salinity, currents, alterations of a natural character, both biological and geological, among others. An archaeological map of the frigate and its cargo, which has been measured. Also has been located and positioned a large number of materials, some elements have been classified visually according to the type of material and conservation status, and areas of control have identified .

Within the framework of these studies, a total of 12 metal objects were selected, chosen because they are at risk of disappearance, either because of their fragility or because of their location, as well as because they allow documenting aspects of life on board of the frigate, which enrich the current knowledge of it. Among these goods are: a brass barrel of 80 centimeters; a pestle of gold mallet; a silver candlestick; three spoons, a fork and three plates, all of them silver.

The underwater excavation has been performed at a depth of 1,130 meters. In spite of this, the system that has been used for the removal of the deposits of earth does not differ in its precision and reliability from the one usually used in the terrestrial archeology.

Publication (spanish): El pecio Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Campaña de prospección y excavación de agosto de 2015Link externo

More info:Enlace externo, se abre en ventana nueva Link externo

mano del mortero de oro de Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes Pulse para ampliar
Cañón pedrero de bronce Pulse para ampliar

Guardianes del Patrimonio: Operación Oddysey

Aquí podréis ver el trailer del programa Operación Odyssey, de la serie Guardianes del Patrimonio, que se emitirá el próximo sábado, 21 de marzo, a las 19.00 horas en la 2.Salto de línea

Guardianes del Patrimonio