The Lost Gold of Lake Guatavita

In an earlier post, we discussed the legend of El Dorado and how it is closely tied Lake Guatavita. To recap – the Muisca tribe used to make sacrifices to their god by dumping piles of gold artifacts and gems into the lake. You may have wondered if anyone has ever tried to recover all the treasure from the bottom of the lake. Well, they have and there are certainly some stories to tell!

All noteworthy attempts to recover treasure from the lake began with trying to drain it. The first occurrence was in the 16th century by conquistadores Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada. They had only limited resources, but went about their treasure hunting with gusto establishing a non-stop bucket chain of laborers. Despite their efforts, they only managed to lower the lake by three meters. Still, they managed to retrieve some gold (approximately $100,000). However, this was a small amount compared to what was believed to still lie at the bottom.

Thirty-five years later, a much larger attempt was made to retrieve the treasures from Lake Guatavita by an entrepreneur named Antonio de Sepúlveda. Foregoing the buckets of his predecessors, Sepúlveda cleaved into the rim to drain it. At first, this worked very well – draining the lake by as much as 20 meters. Unfortunately, the draining construction collapsed and killed many of Sepúlveda’s workers. He also did not fare as well at recovering gold artifacts – finding only about four times more than the previous expedition.

The last expedition was perhaps the most disastrous by far. It occurred in 1898 and was executed by a group of London contractors called “The Company for the Exploitation of the Lagoon of Guatavita.” They dug a tunnel that opened up in the center of the lake which drained it all the way down to a mere four feet. However, this did not make the lake easier to search – quite the opposite in fact. What was left of the lake was so much mud and slime, it was practically impossible to traverse. Worse yet, the sun soon baked the mud like cement, sealing the treasure off. Finding a mere £500 worth of gold, the company later went bankrupt.

Perhaps if man could have waited long enough for the invention of scuba gear, the priceless gold artifacts of Lake Guatavita may have all been recovered.

Orichalcum: Extinct Metal or Common Alloy?

You may remember a previous blog post where we discussed electrum – a naturally occurring alloy made of gold and silver. Electrum was used through ancient times as coinage and was very important. There is another metal that predates it, but historians wonder whether it really existed or if it was just another alloy.

In several ancient writings (especially in Plato’s Critias) a precious metal called orichalcum – second only to gold in value – is mentioned several times. The name derives from Greek and means “mountain copper” or “mountain metal.” Allegedly, the lost city of Atlantis was built mostly of orichalcum – which gave the city a ruddy or bronze-ish appearance.

But what exactly is orichalcum? Ancient texts never specifically say whether it is an alloy or a pure metal. Some texts mention mines running out of orichalcum which may explain why – if it was a pure metal – it is no longer around.

The sestertius and dupondius coins issued by the Roman Empire were supposed to be made of orichalcum, but are actually a bronze-copper alloy. Most historians agree that orichalcum was actually a copper alloy, possibly mixed with gold, tin, or zinc and brass.

A Second Silver Shipwreck Discovered: The SS Mantola

Earlier, we wrote a post that detailed the finding of the SS Gairsoppa shipwreck which contained 219 tons of silver – one of the largest sunken treasures in history. Shortly after the Gairsoppa was found, another silver-bearing shipwreck was discovered: the SS Mantola. The history and discovery of the two wrecks have some truly remarkable similarities.

For starters, Odyssey Marine Explorations – the company that discovered the Gairsoppa, discovered the Mantola as a result of their Gairsoppa expedition. Both ships were discovered in the North Atlantic ocean near the coast of Ireland, both were owned and operated by the British-India Steam Navigation Company, both sunk as a result of wartime tensions, and both were making their way from India to England with vast cargos of silver – 219 tons for the Garisoppa and about 19 tons for the Mantola.

Despite so many correlations between the two finds, there are some notable differences in the histories of the two ships. The SS Mantola had a very short service life – it was launched in March 1916 but sank in February the following year. Still, it earned a tough reputation when it survived running into a sea-mine while on one of its cargo runs. However, it proved no match for a torpedo. Right after repairs from the mine were completed, the Mantola set out on its fateful voyage and was torpedoed by a German U-boat while returning from India – just like the Gairsoppa (the difference being the Mantola was sunk during World War I, not World War II). The Mantola nearly pulled through when a rescue operation went into place to tow the ship back to England. Unfortunately, the lines parted and the Mantola was lost to the sea.

At modern silver prices, the Mantola’s silver cargo is worth approximately $19 million. The British government has a deal with Odyssey to split the value of the silver, with Odyssey retaining 80% of the find – the same deal they have for the Gairsoppa’s treasure. What a coincidence!