In 2011, a team of forensic anthropologists uncovered a 30-meter-long chain of graves in Gumiel de Izán, Burgos. Due to the profession of most of the 59 victims buried there, the place was dubbed “the railroad workers’ grave.” They had been murdered by squads of the fascist party Falange in 1936 and buried by street sweepers from Aranda de Duero. Ten years on, Public Works Minister José Luis Ábalos and the president of Spain’s state-owned railway operator Renfe, Isaías Táboas, have set up a website –www.memoriahistoricaferroivaria.org – and released a film called, Los hijos del hierro (or The children of steel) which documents the tyranny of the Francisco Franco dictatorship towards its enemies forced to work in this sector.
Eighty-eight percent of the rail workforce, amounting to around 90,000 people, were targeted by purging committees. The Franco regime went so far as to create a specific police force that infiltrated companies in order to spy on the railroad workers and detect possible enemies. “The objective,” explains historian Miguel Muñoz, author of several investigations on repression in the sector, was “to annihilate the unions and place the workers in a situation of permanent terror.” Those suspected of being enemies of the regime were not only removed from their trade, but also murdered, executed after being sentenced to death, imprisoned, used as slave labor and forced into exile. The website contains an exhaustive database with files on the reprisals, including those against at least 4,592 women. The film, which can be seen on Renfe’s YouTube channel, takes its title from a piece of writing poet Miguel Hernández published, under a pseudonym, in 1937 as a tribute to the railway workers.
Researchers Francisco Polo, Miguel Muñoz, Fernando Mendiola and Carlos Hernández all participated in the documentary, explaining the multiple methods of repression used by the Franco regime against railway workers such as Antonio Sin, José Báscones, Luis Miguel Martín Montoliu, Paqui Chaves or the former coach of Spain’s national soccer team, Vicente del Bosque, as well as their relatives.
Flavio Báscones worked as a brakeman for the Railway Company. He was a member of both the UGT union and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and had been elected mayor in Mataporquera, Cantabria. The website states that during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) he dug trenches and fought to defend his town, but finally had to go into exile in France with his family, where he remained until his death. His son José remembers his journey into exile from Matarporquera to Ribadesella and from there to Gijón: “They bombed the cinema where we had taken refuge, we couldn’t breathe from the dust,” he recalls. Then to Bordeaux, by train to Girona where, he says “we ate lettuce that we picked from the vegetable plots, pine nuts from the pine forests;” then to Lloret del Mar, and from there to Paris and to the Belgian city of Liège, where he was reunited with his parents in March 1940, before settling definitively in France to live through his second war. “That generation suffered a lot,” says Vicente del Bosque whose father, Fermín – also a railway worker – was imprisoned in Salamanca and Vitoria.
Francisco Chaves was murdered in Torremejía. “He was a track and works foreman,” says his granddaughter Paqui. “The Francoists took him and killed him. They shot him and left him lying in a ditch. There was no trial. His death certificate says ‘Dead due to the war’.”
Antonio Sin was sentenced to death. He spent eight months waiting for his execution, recalls his son Antonio. After eight months, the sentence was commuted in exchange for agreeing to a transfer to the Bustarviejo penal colony in Madrid, where he worked, with almost 1,000 other prisoners on the Madrid-Burgos railroad. The families of many inmates settled right across the street, in stone shacks they built themselves. “That was our home, in the countryside,” says Antonio. His mother, who was a teacher, taught the children of the other prisoners.
The penal colonies were always located near large construction sites and it was the bosses of the contracting companies themselves who went to the prisons to select the healthiest, strongest workers. When they were released, many of the prisoners continued working for the same company because their sentences always included an order of exile, meaning they could not return to their homes. Antonio Sin was among those who continued working on the lines.
From 1938, prisoners of war and political prisoners were used in various railway works to repair what had been destroyed by the war or to build new infrastructure. Until 1940, the number of forced laborers exceeded 9,000. During the last months of the Spanish Civil War, railroad work accounted for 7.1% of the work done by prisoners. The numbers remained close to 3,000 until 1945; during the 1950s, they dropped to below 500.
A team of archaeologists led by Alfredo Ruibal from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) excavated the Bustarviejo penal colony in 2007 to document the lives of the prisoners and their families. The complex has now been restored and set up as a place of memory.
“We tried to close a dark chapter in our history too quickly… We were wrong”
The Transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy was criticized by Public Works Minister José Luis Ábalos at the presentation of the new website and documentary. “Memory hurts, but it is healing,” he said. “Certain sectors, whose link with fascism we must not stop denouncing, continue to rebel against it. Repression is not the worst legacy of terrible dictatorships such as the one we were subjected to. What really annihilates us as a society is oblivion and silence. The political reasons for this do not escape us. We tried to close a dark chapter in our history too quickly in order to embrace democracy. We naively believed that reconciliation meant not looking back, but we were wrong. In order to avoid seeing the open wounds, we were unjust. It is only by examining the past that we will be able to have a dignified future. This is the main lesson we have learned. It is time for the victims of Francoism and their families to stop footing the bills for our democracy.”
Describing “the children of steel” in his 1937 book, poet Miguel Hernández wrote: “Greased and muscular as axles or engines, they carry traces of smoke on their foreheads, and on their skin the pure footprints that work leaves with its powerful horse hooves. They look like burnt ore, running through loyal Spain from end to end, heroic and swift under enemy bombardment. Their muscles tremble like machines, and like machines they do not mind rolling relentlessly through these days in which the freedom of Spain depends on the effort of every Spaniard.”
English version by Heather Galloway.
Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted sunken treasure | USA
The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.
Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”
At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.
The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.
The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.
“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”
The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.
In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.
Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.
These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.
The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.
Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”
Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”
The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”
Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.
After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.
While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”
Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.
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Diver finds 900-year-old Crusader sword off coast of Israel
Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring.
On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword. Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.
It weighed four pounds, measured about four feet long and originated from the Third Crusade, experts said.
“Oh yes, he was surprised and happy,” said Jacob Sharvit, the director of the marine archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Katzin said he would give the sword to Sharvit’s agency, but he wanted just one thing: a photo with the shell-encrusted weapon.
The recent discovery was welcomed in a country that takes immense pride in its history and has a law requiring that any artifacts found must be returned to the nation. The sword was among several artifacts discovered by Katzin, who declined to be interviewed because he said he did not want the discovery to be about him. He also found stone anchors and pottery fragments that date back hundreds of years. But nothing was more impressive than the sword, which Sharvit described as “extremely rare.”
All of the items were found in the same 1,000-square-foot site. The authority has been aware of the location since June, after a storm shifted the sand. Still, finding artifacts remains elusive because of the movement of the sand.
“It’s normal to find swords in bad condition, but this one was found under the water – and under the water, it was preserved in very good condition,” Sharvit said Monday. “It’s the first time that we found a beautiful sword like this.”
The water off the Carmel coast remains the same temperature year-round, which helped preserve the iron in the sword. Because the iron was oxidizsed, shells and other marine organisms stuck onto it like glue, Sharvit said. The discovery of ancient artifacts has increased as diving has grown in popularity in Israel, he said.
In the Second Crusade, the Muslim forces defeated Western crusaders at Damascus, said Jonathan Phillips, a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London. The sword would have been expensive to make at the time and viewed as a status symbol, Holloway said. It makes sense that it was found in the sea, he said, because many battles were waged near beaches, where Christian soldiers landed and were sometimes attacked by Muslim forces.
“It could have been from a knight who fell in the sea or lost it in a fight at sea,” he said. When Katzin found it, he said he was afraid it would be stolen or buried beneath shifting sand, according to a statement from the authority. The general director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Escosido, praised Katzin because “every ancient artifact that is found helps us piece together the historical puzzle of the Land of Israel.” Katzin was given a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.
During the Third Crusade, King Philip Augustus of France, King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart of England), and the holy Roman emperor, Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa), set out to retake Jerusalem. Saladin, the ruler of an area covering modern Egypt, Syria and Iraq, had conquered it in 1187, said John Cotts, a professor of medieval history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
At the time, Pope Gregory VIII tried to inspire Western Christians through “great emotional language” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, but ultimately the Muslim army maintained control of the city, Cotts said. “Traditionally, the definition of a knight is someone on horseback who engaged in mounted warfare,” Cotts said. It is possible that the sword belonged to one of them, and has survived for nine centuries, Sharvit said. After the sword is studied and cleaned, it will be placed in one of the country’s museums, Sharvit said. He would not disclose how much it could sell for, he said, because in his opinion, it was “priceless.” “Every artifact we find is always a really great feeling,” he said. But this one “is very, very special.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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