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For centuries, an unidentified disc-shaped object recovered off the Florida coast was presumed to be a 17th-century cauldron. Now, it appears that experts may have finally discovered its true nature. Could this artifact be a 17th-century diving bell, ingeniously employed in the perilous quest to salvage treasure from a sunken Spanish galleon?

The mysterious copper object was originally discovered off the Florida coast in 1980 near a wrecked Spanish treasure galleon and was believed to have been a cauldron for making fish stew at sea. But now, two researchers have suggested the copper dome represents the remains of a primitive 17th-century diving bell that was used by treasure hunters .

If this object isn't a cauldron, it could potentially be part of an early diving bell, making it one of the earliest known examples of a diving apparatus ever found.

Cauldron or Diving Bell? Reinterpreting Florida’s Unidentified Metal Object
The copper dome was discovered by deep-sea divers in 1980 near the Santa Margarita, a wrecked Spanish treasure galleon that sank in 1622 in the Florida Straits, about 65 km (40 miles) west of Key West. The object was recovered about 50 meters (160 feet) deep, and was initially assumed to be a large cooking cauldron.

Now on display at the Mel Fisher Museum in Sebastian, Florida, two maritime archaeologists now suggest the object was in fact the top of a 17th century diving bell, that was used to salvage treasure from the sunken ship.
Sean Kingsley, a maritime archaeologist and editor of Wreckwatch Magazine , told Live Science that these primitive submersible were most often deployed in shallow waters. He added that with the bottom of the device being open, it was filled with air, offering divers a bubble of breathable air at depths.

Ancient Diving Bell Looks Nothing Like A Cauldron!
In the most recent edition of Wreckwatch Magazine Sean Kingsley and maritime archaeologist Jim Sinclair, who was a member of the recovery team, explained why they believe the object is “a primitive diving bell.” Kingsley said several designs for diving bells were produced in the 17th century. One of the most famous was the 1690 design by the English scientist Edmond Halley, the discoverer of Halley's Comet .

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According to Sinclair and Kingsley, the object measures 147 centimeters (58 inches) in diameter, and it appears to have been constructed from two copper sheets. With a heavy rim, studded with copper rivets all the way around, the researchers said it was “much too large for cooking” and that there “are no signs of charring or heating.” Sinclair told Live Science that while it has been called “a copper cauldron” in the past, he’s seen quite a few ship cauldrons and none of them “look anything like this.”

A Proto-Type Pearl Diving Device?
The Santa Margarita treasure galleon sank in 1622 during a hurricane in the Florida Strait, and all 142 of her crew were lost. When the ship was explored in 1980, the divers found the metallic object beside iron ingots, that might have anchored the device to the seafloor. The wreck of the Santa Margarita has since yielded millions of dollars of treasures, including gold bars, coins and a gold and rock-crystal religious reliquary.

Sinclair said the dome-shaped object is probably “the top part from the diving bell described by the salvager, Francisco Nuñez Melián, in 1625.” This would explain why the device was surrounded by several watertight lower panels made of wood and leather. It is thought that the diving bell was based on a 1606 design by the Spanish inventor Jerónimo de Ayanz, which was later used for pearl diving in Venezuela.

The researchers think the diving bell might have held three divers, and that it might have been connected to a surface support craft with an air hose. The “diving bell” hypothesis has gained further support from the fact that when Melián originally explored the shipwreck in the 17th century, his divers recovered “350 silver ingots, thousands of gold coins, and eight cannons.” This sizable haul strongly suggests the use of a diving bell in the operation.