Atocha’s ‘A Team’

Consultants Agree To Help


By Carol Shaughnessy


WHEN the telephone rang in the house on Little Torch Key on July 20, 1985, it was early on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. Across the dirt road outside, a swampy tangle of mangroves runs down to the ocean. Inside the house, untidy piles of papers and books are spread everywhere on chairs, tables, overflowing bookcases. The phone is hard to find,

“They’ve just radioed in,” a voice on the wire announces breathlessly. “They’ve found a reef of silver bars!

Putting down the phone, Treasure Salvors’ chief archae­ologist, R. Duncan Mathewson III, grins from ear to ear. The date was July 20, 1985, and they” were Mel Fisher’s tena­cious and individualistic dive crew, led by Captain Kane Fisher of the salvage vessel Dauntless. In the next few days, shippers’ and other unique markings on some of the silver bars would be matched to the original cargo manifest of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, proving that this “reef’ was actually the Atocha's mother lode unofficial­ly valued at between three and four hundred million dollars.

Yet, to Duncan Mathewson, and to many of the Florida Keys-based Treasure Salvors, Inc., staff, one of the most excit­ing parts of the discovery was a thirty-by-twenty-foot section of the Atoeha’s rib structure. As the world’s news media fo­cused on the vast amounts of silver, gold, and emeralds to be recovered, Mathewson’s dive mask was directed at the timbers.

He realized the awesome amount of archaeological work ahead. He needed help, and he asked for it.

R. Duncan Mathewson
Photo by Wendy Tucker © 1986

Assembling the Team

The Atocha find had been compared to the opening of King Tut’s tomb, and had been called the greatest shipwreck discovery of the century. Mathewson knew his assistants on this project would have to be modern-day “superhumans’

or a sort of archaeological ver­sion of television’s “The A Team,” bringing a variety of disciplines and backgrounds to bear on a common undertak­ing.

Shortly after Treasure Salvors’ great discovery, the Atocha’s “A Team” began to assemble,

“Team (tem) n. (OE., off­spring) a group of people working or playing together .in cooperative activity.”

Just as the definition suggests, the Atocha’s “A Team” is not one person, or two, but a

group of people bound together in their dedication to the great shipwreck. Who are these team members working so diligently

and why have they come to take part in the telling of the Atocha’s story?


Walter Zacharchuk
Photo by Scott Nierling © 1986

For Nancy Demyttenaere, it was the artifacts that brought her to the Atocha site as a private consultant. She remem­bers watching the television news in her New York apart­ment when the announcement came that the mother lode had been found and she remem­bers jumping up, all alone in the apartment, and yelling, ‘All right, Duncan!”

An archaeological conservator, Nancy received her BA. from William and Mary College, and her M.A. at George Washington University. Since then she has traveled the coun­try as a preservation and con­servation consultant, primarily to museums. She was recently employed at the

History and now is Archae­ological Conservator with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. She likens her work in uncovering an artifact’s past to detective work. “When you look at an archaeological artifact, you can see almost an entire world. You see the world of the craftsman

sometimes on ceramics, you even get fingerprints which could be as much as 3000 years old

As a consulting conservator on the Atocha project, Nancy Demyttenaere feels her primary responsibility lies in giving each artifact the best possible care. She takes this responsibility seriously. “Nobody ever really owns an antique,” Nancy maintains. “You and I are here on a temporary basis

we are merely guardians of this kind of material. It’s what we do with it to preserve it for future generations that really is the most important thing”

Canadian Walter Zacharchuk’s background is very dif­ferent. As a commercial diver in the early 1950’s, Walter be­came fascinated with the artifacts he kept discovering accidentally, and began a long period of archaeological research and study.


Subsequently, Walter Zacharchuk spent over a decade directing an underwater research department for Parks Canada, the government care­taker of Canada’s significant historic shipwreck sites.

John T Dorwin (left) and Bill Schwicker (right)
Photo by Wendy Tucker © 1986

Now a private consultant, Walter is concerned both with the Atocha’s hull structure and with streamlining the site’s entire archaeological process. He deplores an antagonistic attitude shown toward the Atocha project by some of the profes­sional archaeological commu­nity and the government, while highly praising the Treasure Salvors dive crew.

"I find the crew tremendous a team that developed over many, many years. You don’t have to give them orders. Everybody knows what they have to do and they just do it . . .with a will.”

The crew, according to Walter Zacharchuk, has a prime site on which to exercise their skill. “Having seen other sites in salt tropical waters, it’s impressive the amount of timber that is there very impressive. There’s a lot of informa­tion . . . that you don’t have to guess at. It’s very highly visible. It’s in a very, very good state of preservation. Some of the chunks of wood in there are just  tremendous.”

Nancy Demyttenaere
Photo by Wendy Tucker © 1986

For Walter Zacharchuk, however, being a part of the Atocha’s “A Team” means even more than a chance to examine these timbers: it means the chance to witness a new cohe­sion in the often contentious world of underwater archaeolo­gy.

he says slowly, “is to see the treasure aspect - . . tied in with an archaeological operation. I don’t see any reason whatso­ever why this cannot be done.”

John T Dorwin feels it will take time to convince the world that appropriate and proper archaeology is being done on the treasure ship Atocha but, like Zacharchuk, Dorwin is optimistic.

With a Ph.D. in anthropology from Indiana University, Dr. Dorwin has done field work in France, Spain, North Africa, and Colombia. A diver for many years, he taught the first marine archaeology field school at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

John is currently the owner and president of Resource Ana­lysts, Inc., a private archae­ological consulting firm. When he heard of the Atocha find, he had a tremendous desire to see it and then received the invi­tation that brought him to the Florida Keys.

How did John Dorwin react upon diving down for his first view of the wreck? “My first thoughts,” he recalls, “were in terms of detail.

I was looking at the twisted nature of the timbers . . . and only incidentally noticing that there were silver bars and there were coins . . . they were interesting, but I was more in­terested in . . - the pottery, the barrel hoops, the whole range of what was there.”

As a marine archaeologist John Dorwin rates himself honored to be a part of the Atocha’s A Team.”

‘The Atocha really gives you the feel that you’re salvaging something from the ‘wrack of the ages.’ It makes you feel kind of small  and at the same time very proud to be involved in something that is so very dramatic. It’s not just the riches, it’s not just the treasure there’s something very special and human here.”

There are many more people expressing pride at being in­volved in the great enterprise of salvaging the Atocha. Bill Schwicker is studying the hull structure. Bill is a boat builder and sailor who hails from Newfound Harbor on Big Pine Key, only a few miles up the road from Key West. His woodworking experience and keen eye for structural details are invaluable in the detailed study of the hull wreckage.

The father-son duo of Mike and Mark Carlson are devising an integrated computer system to store and classify the huge amounts of data recovered from the site. With close to 300,000 individual artifacts to deal with including more than 100,000 coins, their computerized descriptive inventory sys­tem will revolutionize the whole science of shipwreck archaeology.

Mike and Mark Carlson
Photo by Scott Nierling © 1986

Another member of Atocha’s “A Team” is Dr. James 0. Delus. A lively, laughing man with a Hemingway-esque grey beard, he has been an associate professor at Notre Dame

University since 1970, and has done extensive field work in In­diana and West Africa. it was in West Africa, in fact, that Jim first met Duncan Mathewson,

Bellis was doing graduate work in Ghana; Mathewson was working for an archae­ological reservoir salvage program. Their first project together was, oddly enough, a kind of underwater archaeology investigating some old gold mine shafts that had been flooded by the damming of a river, The two men quickly became good friends.

James O. Bellis
Photo by Scott Nierling © 1986


An Archaeological

Gold Mine

It is in part because of such shared memories and personal ties that Bellis came so promptly to assist Mathewson on the Atocha project. ‘Duncan respects me as an archaeologist, I respect him as an ar­chaeologist, and he trusts me, I think, as a friend first and I, him, or I wouldn’t be here.”

A high degree of archaeological curiosity, too, brought Bellis to Key West. “I’ve wondered what it was like when somebody knocked the first hole through a tomb door in Egypt . . . and now I think I’ve seen it.”

For Bellis, the “opening of the tomb door” came on his first dive, 55 feet down to the wreck of the Atocha.

“I had no words . . it’s an incredible site,” Jim reports. “And they have uncovered it

they haven’t destroyed it. I floated right down onto my belly in this thing ,there it was. This ballast heap going off in one direction, markers up, peo­ple respecting them . . . I still marvel at the extent to which Duncan’s program has been systematized.”

This systematization is the essence of responsible archaeology. According to Jim Bellis, “A site is chaos, and you have to impose order on it to find the

order in it.”

Bellis, who characterizes himself as compulsive, delights in bringing order to an excavation. Nevertheless, he warns, “Any archaeological expedition destroys a site. That’s the name of the game. Any archaeological site is a nonrenewable resource. When it’s destroyed, it’s over.” Of the Atoeha site, Bellis says, “In time, the ocean will eat that site . . . sands shift, more worms will eat more wood . . that’s a hostile environment to the site . . and that site isn’t as well off as it was even a hundred years ago.”

What the Atocha’s archaeological team is trying to do, Bellis explains earnestly, is preserve the knowledge, the stories, bound up in the physical site. “We’re developing a system of recording that precedes recovery” The “A Team,” as responsible archaeologists, is dealing primarily with the spatial relationships of the objects found, and the story to he told through those objects.


The Treasure Salvors divers, Bellis reports, demonstrate great interest in the archaeological aspects of their find, and in its story. He marvels at their quick grasp of archaeological techniques. He praises their willingness to work with him in preserving as much of the site as the elements will allow. “I can see what I’m doing already having an effect. You’d be amazed how seldom that happens - . . this crew has been so receptive.”

Bellis credits the order and method of the Atocha operation— even in the face of continuing international

Photographer-diver Pat Clyne makes underwater photo-mosaic. Mel Fisher assists.
Photo by Don Kincaid © 1980

 publicity, camera crews and interviewers. In contrast, he recalls a land dig he worked on many years ago. A member of an important political family participated in the archaeological work, and the dig went fine until the day came when a press conference was sched­uled. A local luminary came to the site to interview the political personage. “. . and at the press conference” Jim relates, “they stepped on a skull.

 A preliminary reconstruction of the Atocha hull was based upon archaeological information from the sea bed and historical documentation uncovered in Spain by Dr. Eugene Lyon. The dotted section in the stern represents the timbers found on the site of her sister ship, the Santa Magarita.
Drawing by Bill Muir © 1981

“Now, that was a site that covered hundreds of acres on the ground clean air

friendly environment. I mean, we were all up there breathin’ easy together. Showering at night, and eating roast beef.

and the press came in and stepped on a skull that hap­pened to be, . . one of the most interesting skulls we found.” Even after all these years, Bellis winces at the memory. “We have had a hundredfold that confusion here (on the Atocha site) that hasn’t happened.”

Almost with reverence he re­peats, “That hasn’t happened.”


During his work on the Atocha, Jim Bellis says he has developed a great respect not only for the divers and other archaeologists on the Treasure Salvors team, but for Mel Fisher himself. In reference to Fisher, Jim looks back to the system of maritime law that evolved during the Caribbean wrecking days. “We have a tra­dition which says, Down and abandoned, it’s anybody’s ship.’ Mel’s operating well within that legal tradition. Mel’s a very legal man.”

            Bellis considers Mel Fisher to be  an incredible character of the 20th Century I think in his own way he under­stands other dimensions (of his find) than the material wealth  .it has become more than that to him. It’s the story that’s important. That’s what he’s talking about.

“Mel Fisher said, one day, something that was very touching, I thought. He said, ‘I’d like to build a silver stair­way down to it so the world could see it

Bellis and the rest of the Atocha “A Team” have become caught up in “telling the story” of this fascinating shipwreck by utilizing the best archaeological methods possible to recover and to preserve.


A preliminary cross-section reconstruction of the Atocha shoes how the cargo and ballast were probably stored in the lower hull.
Drawing by Bill Muir © 1981

Schematic map of the Atocha and Margarita wreck sites.
Drawn by D. Larissa Dillin. Treasure Salvors © 1985

“That site is all of ours,” Bellis says with emphasis. ‘The Atocha and its story enriches my life . . . I mean, there ought to be some glamour in discover­ing the past, or the truth about a cell, or anything else. And a lot of us get jaded we just get sort of sluggish. I’ve - been reintroduced to some of the feelings that I had gotten dis­tanced from by this big mother lode.” Suddenly, he grins like a school boy. “This has been a buzz. This has been NEAT! I want to go down to the wreck again and again and again. I want to help.”

Carol Shaughnessy is a well known author presently working as the editor of the Coconut Telegraph, Jimmy Buffett's publication of his "Margaritaville" store.



Reprinted with permission from Seafarers,
 Journal Of Maritime Heritage Volume 1

An Official Publication of The Atlantic Alliance For Maritime Heritage Conservation
PO Box 1528
Key West, Florida 33041-1528


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