ORANJEMUND, Namibia (AFP) — Archaeologists are racing against the little time left to salvage a fortune in coins and items from a 500-year-old Portuguese shipwreck found recently off Namibia's rough southern coast.
Despite its importance, the project, in a restricted diamond mining area, is itself costing a fortune in sea-walling that cannot be sustained after October 10.
"The vast amounts of gold coins would possibly make this discovery the largest one in Africa outside Egypt," said Francisco Alves, a Lisbon-based maritime archaeologist.
"This vessel is the best preserved of its time outside Portugal," he said.
"But the cultural uniqueness of this find is priceless."
Alves is part of a multi-national team combing the seabed where the wreck was discovered six months ago.
The 16th-century "Portuguese trade vessel was found by chance this April as mine workers created an artificial sand wall with bulldozers to push back the sea for diamond dredging," Namibian archaeologist Dieter Noli told reporters invited to view the site.
"One of them noticed an unusual wooden structure and round stones, which turned out to be cannon balls," he said.
The abundance of objects unearthed where the ship ran aground along Namibia's notorious Skeleton coast, where hundreds of vessels were wrecked over the centuries, has amazed even hardened experts.
Six bronze cannons, several tonnes of copper, huge elephant tusks, pewter tableware, navigational instruments, and a variety of weapons including swords, sabres and knives have all been tugged out of the beach sand.
"Over 2,300 gold coins weighing some 21 kilograms (46 pounds) and 1.5 kilograms of silver coins were found -- worth over 100 million dollars," Alves said, adding that the ship's contents suggest it was bound for India or somewhere in Asia.
"About 70 per cent of the gold coins are Spanish, the rest Portuguese," Alves said. Precise dating was possible thanks to examination of the coin rims that showed "some of them were minted in October 1525 in Portugal."
About 13 tonnes of copper ingots, eight tonnes of tin and over 50 large ivory elephant tusks together weighing some 600 kilograms have also been excavated from the seabed.
-- This discovery is the largest in Africa outside Egypt --
"The copper ingots are all marked with a trident indent, which was used by Germany's famous Fugger family of traders and bankers in Augsburg, who delivered to the Portuguese five centuries ago," said South African archaeologist Bruno Werz.
The team also includes experts from the United States and Zimbabwe, and the salvation efforts were made possible by the erection of sea walls to keep back the fierce Atlantic surf.
Namibia's culture ministry and Namdeb, the state diamond mining company, have shared the enormous expense, which "costs some 100,000 Namibian dollars (12,500 US dollars, 8,500 euros) per day," according to Peingeondjabi Shipoh, the culture ministry expert in charge of the recovery project.
But that is shortly coming to an end, even though "I believe there is still more to be found," he told reporters.
"From October 10, the walls will not be maintained anymore and the ship's remnants left to the elements again."
At one point it was thought the wreck was that of legendary Portuguese explorer Bartolomeo Diaz, the first known European to sail around the southern tip of Africa in 1488.
In line with the custom of Portuguese explorers of the time, Diaz left a huge stone cross to the glory of his country's king, called a "padrao", that same year at what is today's harbour town of Luderitz, which Diaz baptised Angra Pequena or "small cove", 750 kilometres (465 miles) southwest of the capital Windhoek.
Around 1500, he and his sailing vessel went missing and were never found.
But hope that the Oranjemund find might end the mystery was laid to rest when it was established that the coins on the shipwreck were put into circulation 25 years after Diaz' disappearance.
Under international maritime laws, a wreck and its treasures belong to the country where they were found, and all the coins are now locked in the vaults of the Bank of Namibia in Windhoek.
The government said it plans at some point to mount an exhibition of the findings and later erect a special museum in Oranjemund to house the incredible collection.
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