Dieter Noli shipwreck
Dieter Noli holds a double handful of gold coins found in a shipwreck in the Namibian desert.Photo courtesy of Dieter Noli

The long-ago mystery of a missing Portuguese ship laden with gold has been solved, with the discovery of 500-year-old coins and pieces of The Bom Jesus buried in the desert coastline of Namibia according to reports on Monday (23 May).

It's the oldest shipwreck ever found in sub-Saharan Africa. The first hints of the discovery were found in 2008 by miners bulldozing for diamonds in the sands of the Namib Desert.

Instead they found pieces of wood and metal that pricked the curiosity of Dieter Noli, chief archaeologist of the Southern Africa Institute of Maritime Archaeology, who was certain they had stumbled upon evidence of a shipwreck.

A massive treasure chest of 2,000 mint-condition gold coins were eventually unearthed and dated from 1525 to 1538 and helped to identify the exact name of the ship that they had discovered.

Because of the dates and the coins' perfect condition, the ship had to have set sail at the time dated on the currency. The money, and the other artifacts, fit the profile of The Bom Jesus, which set sail for India in 1533 before vanishing. The 16th century book, Memorias Das Armadas, lists the ship as lost, notes the Gainesville News.

Noli believes the coins were protected because of the nature of the shipwreck. The Bom Jeus likely broke upon rocks lining the coast of Namibia, before tilting and sinking to the bottom upended , with a broken piece of the ship's side thought to have protected the treasure chest when it hit the sea bed.

"We figured out the ship came in, it hit a rock and it leaned over," Noli told CNN. "The superstructure started breaking up. The chest with the coins was in the captain's cabin, and it broke free and fell to the bottom of the sea intact. In breaking up, a very heavy part of the side of the ship fell on that chest and bent some of the coins. You can see the force by which the chest was hit, but it also protected the chest."

Though the treacherous seas and burial by sand broke up the ship into bits, more than 5,000 artifacts of archaeological significance were recovered, including bronze bowls, pewter tableware, a musket, long metal poles later found to be canons, compasses, swords, astrological tools and even a time capsule. Five anchors, copper ingots and more than 50 elephant tusks were also were uncovered.

Miners have been mining diamonds from a vast area of the Namib Desert called the Sperrgebiet (or "forbidden territory" in the language of the German prospectors who first ventured there) for more than a century.

Diamond company DeBeers and the Namibian government still run a joint operation in the area, where a drive for diamonds has now discovered an archaeological breakthrough, with security already in place for the diamond mining operation now protecting the remains of the shipwreck.