The treasure of art, history and gold: The IOTA Partners’ investment of time and money to locate the Santa Margarita, recover its artifacts and display them to the public has saved the surviving artifacts from certain loss. The history of the ship, its greedy commander and its cargo should be documented, and traveling displays prepared to  present the story of the Santa Margarita and its remarkable artifacts to the public. The King’s 1599 taxes in the form of gold coin and bullion were on the Santa Margarita when it left Manila, as attested by letters both to and from King Philip III. Gold jewelry from the orient made to Spanish designs, was a favorite medium for transporting personal wealth from the new world, as it had a great value in a small volume. Gold chains with each link a known weight and fineness could be used as money when needed. Also used as a medium to transport great wealth in a small volume were gemstones, but their value was not as readily determined as was a fixed weight of gold. Much of the jewelry, set with precious gems, was to be traded in New Spain for silver. Hence the principal cargo on the return to Manila was the silver bullion and coins so prized by Chinese merchants.

Other cargo on the Santa Margarita recovered after four centuries in the sea include ivory figurines and religious carvings; beads of all types, including gold, ivory, jade, carnelian, gilded bronze, and glass cast in myriad hues, sizes and facets; fine export porcelain dishes, cups, bowls, ewers, and boxes, all hand painted in cobalt; cast copper and bronze; gemstones; and wood boxes of rich mahogany and other hardwoods, lined with sweet sandalwood and inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl.

In June of 2000, four hundred years after leaving Manila, the first of the Santa Margarita ivories was brought to the surface, battered but of a quality that was stunning. Some figurines were abraded, but whole. Others were shattered, but relatively free of abrasions. The ivory fragments were gathered by IOTA divers and taken to IOTA’s laboratory on Rota where they were assigned a lot number and entered into a conservation procedure lasting 2-4 years. The most time consuming task is to remove hundreds of years of accumulated salts that permeate the ivory. At this time, about 330 ivory fragments and whole pieces have been recovered.  Following restoration they are placed in a controlled atmosphere high security vault for safekeeping, together with other valuable artifacts from the Santa Margarita. The area of the ship containing the most valuable items was typically the stern castle, which is yet to be excavated. When the stern castle is recovered, IOTA’s present inventory of ivories will be greatly increased.

·       For IOTA management, archeologists and conservators, the stewardship for these rare ivories is a responsibility and a challenge. Potential damage to the ivories is a constant concern. Four hundred years in sea water has changed the chemical composition of the ivory.  A surface layer was found which is not present on ivories with a more benign provenance.  Ivory samples have been sent for chemical analysis to determine the degree of change in such ivory components as collagen.  Internet searches and queries to conservators at leading museums failed to yield a precedent to guide IOTA in its conservation treatment. It seems that recovered carved ivory, if treated, either wasn’t scientifically reported and published, or the reports weren't found by IOTA, despite its exhaustive search.

IOTA is faced with the daunting task of assembling the best ivory information it can and proceeding on a course of trial and error, always mindful of the first rule of physicians: “First, do no harm.”  The Conservator for the Santa Margarita project is Mr. Mauro Alvarez, shown here working on one of several 5.5 inch figurines of the Christ Child. He was granted permission by his employer, the National Museum of the Philippines, to participate in the project. When conservation of the ivories is complete, a detailed treatment of the subject will be prepared for learned journals. 

This report, therefore, will leave the technicalities of conservation methodology for the conservator, and instead display photos of the ivories, and discuss their provenance and the process of recovering them.  Only two examples will be presented in this report. Both subjects are about nine inches high, and both have as their subject the Madonna. The first is a figurine, and the second is a bas relief triptych (three panels). For each, IOTA maintained a photographic chronicle, beginning underwater with the battered ivory in situ, followed by pictures of IOTA divers bringing fragments to the surface, where they are kept in their accustomed environment of seawater until conservation treatment is begun at IOTA’s laboratory.

The Madonna figurine:

 This striking sculpture, shown before and after conservation treatment, began its second life with no face, and its body covered by rust stains. The face was found near the body, as were smaller chips testifying to past mayhem on the reef. The overhead view (right) of the figurine in situ (i.e., in its original place), is of her right rear quarter, with the head near the top of the photo and the base at the bottom (see labels on photo).  The rust stain--the black patch in the center of the photo--is on the right rear hip of the figurine, in front of the fish. During conservation the stain was reduced but not eliminated, as can be seen in the photo of the finished figurine below.  The in situ and finished figurine photos both show the right rear quarter. The hole in the back of the head is to support a halo, and can be seen in both photos, though more visible in the restoration.  

The pictures below were taken immediately after the figurine was brought to the surface. The missing hand has not yet been found, but the face was near the figurine in situ

The picture below was taken of the figurine during conservation, shortly before it was reassembled. The figurine shares her chemical bath with various other ivory fragments, including her detached face and two Christ Child figurines.  The Madonna figurine is carved from a single hollow tusk. 

A front quarter view of the restored figurine is below.  The figurine was most likely created in Manila or mainland China by a Chinese craftsman.  The Santa Margarita ivories were carved for the European-Americas market using models supplied by European buyers. 

The facial features of both the figurine and the triptych suggest the sculptor was influenced as much by Chinese artistic conventions as by the European model supplied by the buyer. The religious ivories of the Madonna reflect the serene beauty of the Chinese deity, Guan Yin, re-christened Madonna by an unknown Chinese sculptor.  Interestingly, the creation of ivory art for the European market, particularly the Madonna, stimulated production of figurines of Guan Yin for the Chinese market.  Hence, the fusion of artistic styles was compounded. 

The restored figurine is kept in a climate-controlled environment in a high security vault on the US mainland, together with other valuable artifacts from the Santa Margarita.

The Madonna triptych:

The diver’s eye view of a triptych panel is shown below. It was found in many pieces under about 10 feet of overburden. The left panel shown here is in situ. The white rocks are dead coral; the black rocks are ship's ballast; the dark triangular piece at the lower right is a shard of a large storage jar. Broken pieces of the ivory edge can be seen at the lower left of the photo. The Santa Margarita carried 250 to 350 tons of ballast stones, of all sizes up to about 100 pounds. The blue and white of a porcelain shard can be seen wedged between a ballast stone and the bas relief head on the panel. A diagonal fracture runs across the panel near the bottom.

The center panel is shown here in situ against a dead coral boulder. The back of the left panel is in the foreground, separated along the diagonal fracture. The blue-green tint in the interior of the left panel is from long term underwater exposure to copper. The ship's cargo included copper and cast bronze.

The two pictures below show IOTA divers holding the two outside panels extricated from the reef. The left panel is on the left, and the right panel is on the right.     

After the broken parts to the triptych are desalinated, dewatered and hardened, the jigsaw puzzle is put together in a trial assembly. The left and right panels are shown here in the trial assembly stage. Ninety-five percent of this particular triptych was recovered.                     

The photo below shows the restored left and right panels, together with the trial assembly of the center panel.  

For comparison purposes, a smaller (2.5") Madonna triptych from the Santa Margarita is shown below.  Note that the left and right guardian saints and angels are nearly identical to those on the larger triptych above, with one important difference: on the larger triptych, the feet of the guardian saints are shown.  In Sixteenth Century China, a woman's feet were thought to be erotic.  If the feet were shown at all, it was usually the suggestion of feet behind a gown that came to the floor.  In other Santa Margarita ivories, the feet of male guardian saints are unabashedly shown to be just what they are: feet.  None of the other carved ivory found to date are so risque as to show the feet of the saintly women.  

When the triptychs were created in the late 16th Century the outside panels were hinged or wired to the center panel, to fold over it as a protective shield. When the outside panels are about three quarters open, the triptych can stand alone on a table or shelf. 

The smaller triptych shown here was recovered in the three pieces shown, but lower on the reef front, and thus less vulnerable to storms.  Also shown, the IOTA diver is recovering the triptych from the carbonate sand and cobble of the seabed.  The center panel is in his right hand and the left panel is in his left hand. Each of the three panels was carved from a single piece of ivory.  Other triptych panels of the same size are carved from two or more pieces, with the relief overlaid on the backing.  The overlays create problems during conservation because they are often from a different tusk, and expand and contract at different rates than the ivory backing.  The result is expansion of hairline fractures.

IOTA's research thus far has failed to find references to ivory religious art created before 1600 in the Orient for the Occidental market.  The earliest citation found was in the 1640s, roughly a half century after the Santa Margarita ivories were carved.  However, as the Manila galleons made their annual trips for about 35 years before the Santa Margarita sailed, it is possible that a few carved ivory pieces were transported on galleons making the trip in the 1580s and 1590s. Determining the provenance of such surviving pieces may be difficult, whereas the provenance of the Santa Margarita ivories can be stated with certainty. 

The ivories from the Santa Margarita appear to be unique in one other respect: they are the only known examples of ivory sculptures recovered and given a second life after spending four hundred years in the sea. 

Many more artifacts remain to be collected from the Santa Margarita.  The second die, the rest of the chess set, the left and right panels of a St. Jerome triptych, and the center panel of a large triptych would complete some of the sets already recovered by IOTA.  



All artifacts shown in this report were recovered from the Santa Margarita (1601).

For more comprehensive reports on the Santa Margarita ivory sculptures, see reports by

1) Marjorie Trusted, Ph.D., Principal Curator of Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Survivors of a shipwreck: Ivories from a Manila galleon of 1601, Hispanic Research Journal, Vol. 14 No. 5, October 2013, 446–62, and

2) Esperanza Gatbonton as a paper read at the Getty-Ayala Museum Symposium Transpacific Engagements, Manila, 2014.  The paper is scheduled to be published together with other papers read at the Symposium, in 2015.