Discovery of gothic sculpture in Spanish river – thoughts on Spain’s finds regulation system

Posted on: July 13, 2020 by

Río Sar, Galicia, Lmbuga via Wikimedia Commons

Last month, a fisherman found in the Sar River, near the city of Santiago de Compostela (Galicia, Spain), a 14th-century gothic sculpture of the Virgin and Child, half-submerged, and covered in moss and slime. On paying closer attention to the shape of the object, he noticed some engravings suggesting that what he was looking at was a sculpture and not an ordinary stone, as he had initially thought. The next day, he communicated the find to the Association for the Protection of Galician Cultural Heritage, which immediately alerted the authorities. The Galician Government then removed the sculpture and placed it in the Pilgrim Museum to study it further.

The discovery raised several questions about the origin of the piece and the story behind it. It seems that the sculpture was designed to be hung on a wall because four out of five sides were engraved, with the back providing a hook for securing the sculpture to a surface. Even the underside was decorated so the work can be enjoyed from beneath. The first studies suggest  that the sculpture dates from the 14th century and had been submerged in the river for more than a hundred years. The specific origin of the piece is still unknown, though there is reason to believe that it was taken from a deconsecrated church called Virxe da Cuncha (Virgin of the Shell), located in the nearby village of Conxo.

Many unanswered questions remain, however. The sculpture depicts a Virgin and Child on a throne, with two little angels, one on each of the Virgin’s shoulders. The face and the finer details of the engraving are now half-erased, as a result of the age of the piece and the fact of its being underwater for so long. After all this time, some damage and loss of detail is inevitable, especially in the most intricate details like the face, hands, and folds of the clothes. But there are suggestions that the Virgin’s face was intentionally erased given that the sculpture came from a deconsecrated place of worship. How the sculpture ended up in the river is also, as yet, an unresolved mystery.

While questions about the statue’s history emerge and experts progress their research, a number of legal questions also arise. The main matter in this regard relates to the regulation of treasures and finds under Spanish law. Is the fisherman entitled to a reward for the find and has he any right to claim ownership? As a starting point, we must bear in mind that any find of an archaeological artefact is considered to belong to Spanish Historical Heritage and will become public property. The finder will never have ownership over this type of object, as is provided in article 44.1 of the Spanish Historical Heritage Law (SHHL). It is also worth noting that many finds of this nature take place during the course of archaeological excavations or authorised research projects, in which case the finder is directly prevented from gaining ownership and is under an obligation of disclosure.

However, the law does include the possibility of a reward for the finder of a ‘chance’ find. In this  context, a find discovered by chance is one made where there was no intention to find anything: the discovery is entirely fortuitous, made in a place where it had not been expected to happen. In this regard, it is necessary to consider not only the regulation of the national law of Spanish Historical Heritage but also the relevant regional laws which may introduce different provisions. This is precisely the case in Galicia. Galicia is one of Spain’s 17 Regions and enacted its own Galician Cultural Heritage Law (GCHL) in 2016. Though the regulation regarding the finds system is almost identical to the national law, there are some subtle differences. For example, the regional law more closely regulates the finder’s obligation to communicate the find, specifying the deadline, and to whom the find should be reported.

The fact that the present find was discovered underwater is, of course, of significance. Given the particular characteristics and regimes applying to underwater heritage, it is necessary to consider if the general provisions will apply to the current case. The SHHL extends its general regulation to underwater finds, which are considered archaeological activities, but has no specific provisions as to rewards owing to finders. By contrast, the Galician Law (article 99.4) specifically provides that the reward is excluded when the find is of immovable property or belonging to the underwater cultural heritage of Galicia. The Law defines underwater heritage as any traces of human existence located in ‘the territorial sea’ and ‘internal waters’. These two terms seem to derive from concepts in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),  but UNCLOS does not mention rivers or lakes specifically, leaving some doubt about whether a find in a river could be deemed an ’underwater’ find within the provisions of the Galician Law.

Interestingly, the Galician law does not specifically reference UNCLOS. It does, however, refer (at article 102) to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Article 1.(a) of this Convention defines underwater cultural heritage as “all  traces  of  human  existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years”. The Galician law therefore seems to encompass this broader definition of ‘underwater heritage’, which does not distinguish internal waters, nor require that they should fit within the more restricted definitions of UNCLOS. Reliance on this broader definition suggests that the fisherman who found the statue of the Virgin did the right thing when alerting the authorities about his discovery, but, sadly for him, will not be entitled to a reward according to the Galician law.