Experts believe an object found near Gold Beach is a chunk of beeswax from a Spanish trading vessel that sank off the coast of what is now Oregon more than 300 years ago.
GOLD BEACH — It was the luminescent glow that caught Loretta LeGuee's attention.
"The sun was shining through it — it kind of looked like a huge egg," said the Gold Beach resident who has been combing the local beach each morning for years.
The oval-shaped amber object resting on the storm-tossed log early that December morning was no egg.
Experts believe it's a chunk of beeswax from a Spanish trading vessel that sank off the coast of what is now Oregon more than 300 years ago.
"From the picture they sent me, that's what it looks like to me — it's definitely beeswax," said Scott Williams of Olympia, Wash., assistant state archaeologist for Washington.
Williams would know: He's the leader of the "Beeswax Wreck Project," an effort by a nonprofit group of volunteers whose mission it is to solve the mystery of why blocks of beeswax have been popping up along the Oregon Coast for centuries.
They suspect the beeswax is either from the Santo Christo de Burgos, which sank in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, which disappeared in 1705. In both were tons of beeswax from the Philippines bound for Mexico via the Manilla-Acapulco trade route, Williams explained. There is historic evidence one of the ships wrecked in Nehalem Bay, creating the beeswax bounty, according to the team that hopes to conduct archaeological research at the site.
"Where she (LeGuee) found it would be unusual, being so far south," Williams said, noting the ocean currents off Oregon flow north, not south. "But we know the Indians were trading it prehistorically up and down the coast."
LeGuee, 52, and her dog, an energetic German shepherd named Norman, found the beeswax along the beach just south of Gold Beach in early December. She often takes her two children to school in the morning then goes for a short walk on the beach with Norman. Her husband, Rory, is a local minister and a substitute teacher.
Since a ferocious storm had just blown through the region, Loretta LeGuee, a 1973 graduate of Medford Senior High School, kept a sharp eye out that day. After all, she had found fishing floats and agates in the past after a storm.
"And we had just had high winds — real bad weather," she said.
Sure enough. There was the beeswax weighing some 10 pounds.
After showing it to her husband, she took it to Gold Beach High School so science teacher Nancy Treneman could examine it.
"I have walked the Oregon beaches for 48 years and I have never seen anything like this," said Treneman, a veteran teacher who has taught everything from chemistry to physical science.
"Loretta has found the coolest find," she said, noting her students are fascinated by the discovery.
"It's things like this that make it so interesting to live here," Treneman added. "Two years ago it was a dead whale. This year, it's the beeswax."
"Yeah, when I took the kids on a drive down past Pistol River the other day, we were talking about the dead whale," LeGuee said. "One of the kids said, 'Remember mom, one of the kids got up on top of it and fell in.' "
With that, both LeGuee and Treneman fill the science room with laughter.
As a marine biologist, Treneman can rattle off the Latin names of the barnacles and mussel shells embedded in one side of the wax.
"This looks to me like a worm tube," she said of a formation left by one long-dead sea creature. "They are all species that live on our coast. All of these are near-shore species."
But she was at wit's end about just what the chunk was until she spotted a January article in Science magazine. It told about Oregon's mysterious "beeswax wreck" near Nehalem.
"I knew this was what we had," said Treneman who then contacted Williams about the find.
Beeswax was a hot trade item back when the two Spanish vessels sank, Williams explained. It was much preferred for candles over foul-smelling tallow (rendered animal fat).
"The Catholic church required the use of beeswax," he said. "There were no native honeybees in the New World. The churches in Mexico had to get wax from someplace and the large Asian honeybees produced a lot of beeswax."
There are numerous records dating back to the early 1800s of Indians trading cakes of beeswax to Europeans coming into the Pacific Northwest, he said.
"As soon as the Northwest fur trades came into the country, the Indians were trying to trade beeswax to them," he said. "The Indians told them it was from a shipwreck."
The San Francisco Xavier was carrying some 75 tons of beeswax, representing at least 500 cakes, according to shipping records. Because a massive tsunami in January of 1700 would have sent earlier ship remains farther inland, a researcher on the team believes the Nehalem Bay beeswax is likely from the 1705 shipwreck.
Over the years, Williams has talked to nearly a dozen people, mainly along the northern Oregon coast, who have found large chunks of beeswax.
Although it has little monetary value, unlike the gold and silver found on some sunken galleons, the rare find is priceless to the archaeologist.
"It's 300-year-old beeswax from a Spanish galleon — to me, that's really neat," Williams said, adding, "And it's still washing up."
For more information about the Beeswax Project, check out www.nagagroup.org/BeesWax online.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.