Six Questions with Shaun Whitehead: Archeologist, Creationeer, and Treasure Hunter
Shaun Whitehead applies his exceptional talents to redefining the limits of exploration. Living such a unique and fascinating life, Shaun has had to invent his own word to describe his amazing career: Creationeer! His creative engineering has overcome some of the most challenging tasks. Sending creations far into space and delving deep into the pyramids, he continues to demonstrate no unknown territory is safe with its secrets!
Shaun’s drive to learn and discover encourages anyone to do the same! With determination and perseverance, he sets the example the world (and beyond) is here for us to search. Treasure is certainly all around, and he proves it is up for us to find it. I am sure you will enjoy his following ‘Six Answers’ as much as I did!
- 1Q) You use your extraordinary creativity to help engineer devices which can examine the past, assist the present, and inspire the future. What would you say is one of your most prized inventions, and why?
I’m lucky in that my exploration has taken me, or at least my creations, beyond Earth. The one I am most proud of never got the chance to do its job. I designed the basic configuration for the British-led Beagle 2 Mars lander. The lander had a clever clamshell design that would open whatever the orientation. This design also maximised the heat and light energy from the sun, which is just a little dot in the dusty sky on Mars. I was also Chief Engineer for the PAW, the part of the lander that would reach out and touch the surface of the red planet, grab samples, look closely at its rocks… someone described it as a “Swiss army knife of the 21st century”. The engineering and science of the lander was great, but it appears that the system that was supposed to get it to the surface of Mars (not related to the lander) failed. So, on Christmas day 2003, Beagle 2 disappeared. Someday it would be nice to go and look for it personally!
- 2Q) From managing the Djedi Project, which explored the mysterious shafts inside the Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid (with a robot you helped create), you got a firsthand look into unexplored areas of this amazing structure. Did you feel like you were intruding or do you feel those people of the past would want us to re-discover their secrets? Would you share some of your thoughts about this adventure?
The Great Pyramid has always made me feel most welcome, a benign presence. Most of the time when working there we are focused on the day-to-day; the hard work of hauling boxes of equipment up steep and cramped passageways, making sure that the power supply is reliable, the robots are functioning, just doing the nuts and bolts engineering. For parts of the day, we share the pyramid with the general public. Most of the time though, the pyramid is ours, and sometimes just mine. It’s then that I get the chance to reflect, and the best place to do that is in the King’s Chamber. The massive granite walls and ceiling almost glow a deep red in the dim light. The air is perfectly still and every sound resonates. I try to feel what it must have been like 4500 years ago, with builders, priests, perhaps the pharaoh Khufu himself. It’s difficult. It’s almost as though the memories have been absorbed into the solid structure, and all that remains is a reflection of oneself.
My closest connection with the builders was when our robot discovered the small written symbols behind the first “door” in one of the shafts that leads from the Queen’s Chamber. It was amazing to witness something that had last been seen 4500 years ago, and then only by a privileged few. My overwhelming sensation was that they were happy for us to discover their message. Throughout the pyramid there are other signs left by the ancient builders, to indicate “unusual” features, some of them not yet properly explored. I feel very strongly that the Great Pyramid has not yet yielded all of its secrets.
- 3Q) The lost treasure of Lima seems to be waiting for you to discover it. You are one of the leading researchers, with plans to investigate a possible location, when conditions allow. How confident are you that the absolute priceless relics exist and are retrievable?
We are not specifically looking for the lost treasure of Lima, even though that was what first attracted me to Cocos. We will be carrying out an archaeological, geological and ecological survey of the island. The modern “treasure” is in the island’s biodiversity and its pristine condition, making it as close as we can get to a Jurassic island. I understand that Michael Crichton used it as an inspiration for Jurassic Park. Of course I have researched the treasure of Lima, and unlike many other researchers I have tried to get back to basics and primary sources, to answer the questions of whether the treasure ever existed, was found, and if not why not.
One great source is the journal of an interesting character, Lord Thomas Cochrane. The characters Captain Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower are based on his exploits. He was dismissed from the Royal Navy in 1814, following a conviction for fraud on the Stock Exchange, and he then served in the rebel navy of Chile during the revolutionary war, just at the time that the treasure of Lima was supposedly being shipped out of Peru. Cochrane reports cartloads of treasure being shipped at the time, later he reports an encounter with a “pirate [vessel] off Cocos”. So, there was plenty of treasure, and at least some pirates!
It’s possible that the treasure was subsequently found, perhaps even confiscated by Cochrane himself, but it’s difficult to dispose of a life-sized solid gold statue of the Madonna without someone finding out about it!
If the treasure was on Cocos and never found, one possible explanation is that it was hidden in a cave that was subsequently covered by one of the many landslides on the island. Fortuitously, our survey equipment happens to be able to identify such caves using Ground Penetrating Radar, and we can perform “keyhole archaeology” using a backpack drill and snake camera to see if there is anything interesting.
- 4Q) The Thrill of the Chase by Forrest Fenn has not only captured people’s attention in the United States, but in your country, and even the world. It is a treasure hunt worthy of anyone’s inquiry. As a successful treasure hunter, what do you feel is one of the most important things to consider about searching for this chest of gold?
My hat is off to Forrest Fenn! He has secured his place in legend. I always say that it is important to get into the mind of the hunt setter, and as with serious archaeology, to get back to the purest information. With Forrest, it’s difficult. He may be an amazing character, intelligent and wily, but we have no idea whether he is any good at setting treasure hunts. It would be a great mistake to assume that the hunt is a work of genius, it may be but we can’t possibly know.
Now for a tip, you can take this or leave it, but I know a little bit about these things. Some people think that this can be solved like an “armchair” hunt, identifying the location from the comfort of one’s home before heading straight to it. I thought like this, I don’t any more. Some people think that it can only be found by getting out and about, and randomly fitting solutions to the clues. I don’t think so. I think that the way it will be solved is a combination of the two.
I think that the clues point to geographical features, but not specific ones, so for example “wise” would not lead you to a named feature such as Owl Creek, otherwise you would be able to short-circuit the solution and Forrest is convinced that we cannot do that. I think that the clues are not complex codes or ciphers, but more crossword-style, so you can (and should) have a very good idea about the features you are looking for before you leave home. However, you will probably not positively identify them without going there, except if you are lucky on Google Maps and Street View. You should definitely start where warm waters halt!
- 5Q) I marvel at the amount of work you do, and yet, still find time to work on armchair treasure hunts, and even help others find lost cherished items, like the late Donald Campbell medal you recently found for his daughter, Gina. What do you enjoy most about finding things? What is one of your most memorable finds?
Funnily enough, it’s not the thrill of the chase for me, it’s that moment when you make the discovery, either when you crack a code and meaningful words appear, or you see red ochre symbols appear in the video feed from a robot traversing a pyramid, or you see the glint of gold in the ground. It’s difficult to describe, only those who have had that lightning bolt shock through the body can know what it feels like. I hope that everyone can have that experience at least once in their lives.
All finds feel very special, from running around on a small farm as a child to discover eggs laid in secret places by our free ranging hens, to large solid gold treasure chests. The physical value to me is not important at all. I wanted to solve one treasure hunt called Quest that my mother was fascinated by. She was in ailing health so I really wanted to find it on her behalf, and she really wanted me to find it. Every time we talked on the ‘phone, she would start with “Have you solved Quest?”. This ritual went on for a few years. One day I was able to telephone her and say “Ask me if I’ve solved Quest”…
- 6Q) If you can say, what other things are you currently working on? Or is there a ‘discovery’ that you would consider the ultimate find?
I’m working on an exciting space exploration project, three archaeology/treasure projects and I have a lot more on the to-do list. There’s never an ultimate for me, it’s always the next thing, but I guess that finding a new chamber in the Great Pyramid or having the chance to explore the tomb of Qin Shi Huang would be pretty special.
Such fascinating adventures, Shaun, and totally inspiring words. Thank you. With only six questions and all your different interests, I didn’t ask one of the questions which had come to mind. It was whether you thought searching for the Golden Casket of the Quest treasure hunt for 14 years was worth the effort of finally finding it. You answered it perfect without me even asking.
Thanks again for the opportunity to ask you the above six questions. I am looking forward to learning about your continuing explorations and those you have inspired.