Tuesday, September 07, 2004


Seeking the "Santa Maria"


When Christopher Columbus "discovered" America in 1492, he piloted one of history's most storied ships, the Santa Maria.

Yet when the great mariner returned in glory to Spain in 1493, he had left behind his flagship and more than a third of his men.

On Christmas Eve, 1492, the Santa Maria had wrecked on a Caribbean sandbar. The loss of his largest vessel forced Columbus to leave 39 sailors behind with friendly Taino Indians governed by chief Guacanagari in what is now northern Haiti.

Columbus instructed his men to build a fort, explore the area, look for gold and treat the indigenous people with respect. And Columbus kept his promise to return in less than a year. But what he found was the burned remains of a fort, a scorched Taino village and not one of his men alive.

Five centuries later, archaeologists and explorers are seeking the remains of the Santa Maria and the site of Europe's first accidental colony in the Americas, named La Navidad.

And if they find one, they may be led to the other: Columbus's writings put the site of the Santa Maria's demise and the location of the La Navidad fort about 4.2 nautical miles apart. Furthermore, Columbus ordered the stranded men to take planks from the scuttled Santa Maria to help build their fortification. If they followed his order, might evidence of the ship still exist on land?

Historical archaeologist Kathleen Deagan has conducted field excavations in northern Haiti for 25 years, some of the time looking for just such evidence. Already, she believes she has confirmed the location of La Navidad. Among the excavated finds dated to around the time of Columbus: tiny fragments of pigs' teeth and a rat's jaw. Rats and swine were brought to the Americas by Europeans.

"We always like to think of it as the first rat to leave a sinking ship in America," says Deagan, the distinguished research curator of archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and an adjunct professor of anthropology, history and Latin American studies at the University of Florida.

Meanwhile, explorer Barry Clifford has been looking for the remains of the Santa Maria in the shallow waters off the nearby coast. But could any part of a 15th-century wooden boat have survived more than 500 years in the salty Atlantic? Perhaps the most likely remnants would be rock ballast, which — if found — could be traced to rock sources in Europe.

See article here.

Historical archaeologist
Kathleen Deagan reviews
evidence at the site of her

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