Duncan Mathewson: Archaeologist has spent career with shipwrecks, salvors

Keys archaeologist Duncan Mathewson wasn’t surprised when he heard an idea to attach metal detectors to dolphins in the hopes they would uncover treasure buried beneath the Caribbean sand.

After all, it came from his pal, Mel Fisher.

“Mel Fisher is probably the most unforgettable character I’ll ever meet,” Mathewson said of the Florida Keys treasure hunter who died in 1998.

The tricky thing about hanging out with Fisher in the 1970s and 1980s, Mathewson said, was separating where truth from wild fantasy.

“He was a guy that loved to tell the tall tale,” Mathewson said. “You never could really figure out what was true and what was slightly not so true.”

He recalls drinking rum and cokes with his colleague at bars like the Chart Room, the Bull and Whistle, Captain Tony’s Saloon and Two Friends Patio.

In typical treasure hunter fashion, a thin gold bar served as a swizzle stick to stir Fisher’s drinks.

Mathewson, 69, fondly recalls Fisher’s idea to create a huge floating barge with electric coils wrapped around it to assist treasure hunts. The problems: It sank, and no divers would go in the water for fear of electrocution.

‘Hand to mouth’

Mathewson’s life sounds something like an Indiana Jones movie script: attending graduate school in England, researching archaeology in Ghana, and fulfilling the government’s archaeological demands in Jamaica.

Finally, a phone call from Mel Fisher brought him to Key West in 1973, when treasure wasn’t paying the bills and the crew was living “hand to mouth” in a commune.

Nevertheless, it was a good life for the adventurers.

“We developed a good chemistry — I was the archeologist, he was the treasure hunter,” Mathewson said. “We didn’t always agree on certain things, but it was a lot of fun in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Fisher developed the “mail box” — a special kind of metal detector in 1963, used to clear water at the ocean floor. The advancement in that tool led to high-tech detectors that are capable of dipping into an area of very stiff current, he says.

Mathewson now works for Blue Water Ventures, a joint venture with Mel Fishers Treasures, dedicated to finding the mother lode of the Santa Margarita, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1622, along with the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

In June, 20-year-old diver Michael DeMar surfaced with a 385-year-old gold chalice found at the shipwreck site of the Spanish galleon Santa Margarita. It’s been described as the biggest find since 1985, the year the the mother lode of the Atocha was found.

The rest of the mother lode — silver bars and coins — may be found near the sunken vessel that Fisher discovered about 40 miles from of Key West.

Prior to those finds, Fisher’s son, Dirk, and his wife, Angel, and diver Rick Gage died after their boat capsized July 20, 1975, two days after Key West attorney David Paul Horan filed a lawsuit to protect Mel Fisher’s treasures.

More gold, problems

“As soon as you find the gold, everybody wants a piece of it,” Mathewson said.

Paul Horan won landmark cases in federal and state courthouses over who owned the bay bottom, where Fisher’s divers explored.

It was eventually brought before the supreme court decision five to four in favor of Mel Fisher’s Treasures in 1982, which brought his treasure, worth “upwards of $6 million,” back to Key West, Horan said.

“And the state didn’t end up with a single coin,” Horan added.

“That was a great step forward,” Mathewson said. “Ever since then we’ve been working pretty well with the state and the [National Marine] Sanctuary.”

Even Mathewson, as an archaeologist working for a private company, received his fair share of criticism. Commercial salvage wasn’t a real option for many archaeologists at the time, he said.

Mathewson argued to academics that just because people would enjoy the treasures after finding them wouldn’t mean they would fall off the face of the Earth. Eventually the artifacts make it to museums.

“I was kind of a pioneer in my day — took a lot of arrows in my back, let me tell you,” Mathewson said, chuckling.