UNESCO emergency mission to Panama assesses the condition of the wreck of the Spanish Galleon San José


A UNESCO expert mission visited Panama during the first two weeks of July, and then again from 21 - 29 October 2015, at the request of the government of Panama. The mission examined the state of the supposed site of the San José shipwreck, a Spanish galleon that sank in the archipelago of Las Perlas in the 17th century. A commercial company, Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo (IMDI), had been salvaging the shipwreck since 2003.

The mission was undertaken by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This Advisory Body is a crucial organ of the 2001 UNESCO Convention. Consisting of 12 elite experts in underwater archaeology and related fields, its core responsibility is to provide advice to States Parties in questions of a scientific or technical nature related to underwater cultural heritage. States that lack underwater archaeologists, but face problems due to chance discoveries, treasure-hunting or scientific doubts, can call on the UNESCO STAB for assistance.

The question posed by Panama was if IMDI, the commercial firm working on the wreck site, had respected applicable archaeological standards in its work on the San José, standards laid down in the 2001 UNESCO Convention. The Convention forbids, amongst other things, the commercial exploitation of underwater heritage, and requires that work has to be overseen by a competent archaeologist and should not be unnecessarily destructive. The findings have to be scientifically documented and artefacts conserved.

The STAB Mission members for the Panama mission were Xavier Nieto Prieto (Spain), Dolores Elkin (Argentina) and Helena Barba Meinecke (Mexico), accompanied by the Professor of Law, Mariano Aznar, all highly experienced senior experts. In cooperation with Panamanian experts, the experts first assessed all recovered artefacts during the June mission and then in October visited the site of the wreck of the San José to evaluate the work carried out by IMDI.

The artefacts recovered from the site by IMDI were coins, pottery and ferrous materials. The coins were seized as IMDI attempted to take them covertly out of Panama. The site is of great historic importance for Panama. If the artefacts can be kept in Panama, they could become part of a museum exhibition.

Read the evaluation report of the STAB on the site.


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