Wednesday, August 10, 2005

From a Spanish galleon

A rosary that wasn't?
(but actually I think it is)

Here's another one of those "Duh!" stories like Balthasar's acorns, where a little more information makes clear that my first guess was wrong.

Up for sale on eBay about four years ago was what was billed as a rosary from 1715, specifically (the seller said) from one of the wrecks of the 1715 spanish treasure fleet, wrecked on the inshore reefs between Sebastian and Ft.Pierce, Florida, on July 31, 1715. It's said to be "solid gold" and was said to have been assessed at $47,000. (It sold for considerably less -- in the hundreds rather than the thousands.)


I took one look at this and snorted. There are no beads on it, just a chain. I was convinced it had to be a necklace.

Spanish overall

I wrote to the seller to ask if they had any better photos. (Sellers are often quite willing to provide these to a polite inquirer if they have them -- very useful for anyone who collects pictures of something, even if you never bid on the specific piece they're offering.) I also pointed out the lack of beads and asked if they were sure this was really a rosary. I have to say, the reply I got was a bit rude, and it convinced me that a lot of sellers, especially dealers, really do not want to hear about it if you have information about their items :)

Spanish closeup

However, looking at this again with what I know today, I actually think it's a rosary after all. Here's what I think has happened. The original beads have all disappeared. The long links of wire we are seeing with a loop on each end originally each had a bead on them. Here's a diagram.


If you count the empty wire-links, there are indeed ten of them in a group, with a rather complicated-looking little group of stuff between each group. There are seven decades in all, a mildly unusual but not at all unheard-of number (the Franciscan Crown, for instance, has seven decades). The in-between bits of stuff each represent a gaud or marker bead. Each is composed of a short length of chain, a wire link similar to the others but with two loose bead caps remaining on it, and another short length of chain. Again the bead is now missing.

What's become of the beads is anyone's guess. If they were a relatively soft substance such as ivory, wood, amber or even pearls, they could have been destroyed by simple weathering or chewed by some of the local sea life. If they were a hard substance such as glass or agate, they could have been broken. I suspect this piece was also "cleaned up" considerably before being sold, since salvaged items often are, in order to appeal to modern collectors: perhaps there were some remnants of beads that were removed at that time, which is unfortunate for us since we've lost the opportunity to know what they were. The wire parts have probably also been re-linked and cleaned -- whether buried in sand or exposed, it's unlikely to have survived as completely unbroken and shiny as it is now.

rosary or not: part 2