April 7, 2013 at 4:09 PM ET
By Marc Lallanilla
A great superpower, weakened by economic calamity at home and staggering under the debt from years of war in the Middle East, finally collapses.
A new political best-seller, or an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster? Neither — it's the story told by a 1622 shipwreck whose treasures were desperately needed to shore up the finances of the struggling Spanish Empire.
The galleon Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario was one of 28 ships in the Tierra Firme fleet; all were sailing from the New World back to Spain, laden with colonial treasures, when they were struck by a powerful hurricane off the Florida Keys.
Eight of the ships sank, killing 500 people and delivering a death blow to an imperial power, effectively closing the curtain on the Golden Age of Spain. [Disasters at Sea: 6 Deadliest Shipwrecks]
The shipwreck "is the most important Spanish galleon to be found because of what its loss meant," Sean Kingsley, a marine archaeologist who has been studying the wreck, told The Times of London.
"Its loss broke the Bank of Madrid at a time when there was 300 percent inflation in Spain, and it was in serious debt for its endless wars," Kingsley said. "Spain never recovered."
The ship's bounty is now on display at the Tampa, Fla., headquarters of Odyssey Marine Exploration (the outfit that recovered the treasure), the Telegraph reports.
The findings are a reflection of the dazzling wealth of Spain's colonial outposts: more than 6,000 pearls, some of which were the diameter of a nickel when harvested; silver coins bearing Spain's imperial stamp; bars of almost-pure gold; and long strands of glittering gold necklaces.
Along with these treasures, the shipwreck also yielded more prosaic reminders of everyday life in the colonial era. Parrot feathers recovered from the wreck reveal the birds' value as colorful, talkative pets. Ceramic jars held olives and other food for the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
Though the shipwreck was first discovered in 1965 when shrimp fishermen pulled up pottery and other artifacts in their deepwater nets, at 1,300 feet (405 meters) below the surface, recovery wasn't feasible.
But in later years, by using a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, archaeologists were able to begin the slow recovery process from aboard the research vessel Seahawk.
The excavation of treasure and artifacts from the wreck of the Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario is detailed in Kingsley's new book, "Oceans Odyssey 3: The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain's 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet" (Oxbow Books, 2013).