Thursday, August 11, 2005


Archaeologists troll for long-sunken ship


Myrtle Beach
By Kelly Marshall
August 10, 2005

GEORGETOWN In 1526, Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon led an expedition of men, women and children into Winyah Bay aiming to found one of the first colonies in North America.

De Ayllon's journey to the Georgetown area was short-lived, but he left his biggest galleon behind with treasures modern archaeologists hope to find as they ply the bay bottom with sonar waves to map shipwrecks along the state's coastline. Though they do not expect to find gold, the ship sank loaded with supplies that could provide a picture of settlement life.

Monday, underwater researchers began looking for the Capitana. The Spanish galleon has not seen the light of day in nearly 500 years, since it is thought to have sunk in about 25 feet of water near North Island, said Chris Amer, state underwater archaeologist for the maritime division of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Archaeologists plan to return in September to dive for wrecks spotted by the survey. If the Capitana is found, they might ultimately rescue some of the sturdier artifacts, Amer said.

The survey is part of a long-term project to map about 11,000 miles of inland water and more than 187 miles of coastline in South Carolina to determine where shipwrecks from all eras are located, Amer said. It could locate Civil War-era vessels or other historic wrecks as well, helping archaeologists to learn more about the past and to protect shipwrecks for future studies.

"Winyah Bay is a very historic area," Amer said. "We're trying to cover areas of high probability [for shipwrecks]. We're also looking for other sunken vessels; anything we find we will investigate."

The search for the Capitana is being funded by $6,000 in private donations, Amer said. The crew from the Maritime Research Division of the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology will work from a 25-foot C-Hawk research vessel in Winyah Bay for three weeks, then return the last week in September to dive near wrecks it finds.

Even after the Capitana sank, the colonists were thought to have settled in Georgetown for a short while, although the location has not been found, Amer said.
No sign of the vessel was found Tuesday.

"The galleon went down at the entrance to Winyah Bay," Amer said. "I doubt that they salvaged very much. There is a very good possibility that the vessel was beaten apart, but the heavier things would remain, including anchors, ceramics or a load of olive oil. They had a lot of trade goods."

The search
During the search for the Capitana, archaeologists also could find evidence of other shipwrecks, including ones from the Civil War.

The Grand Strand was home to many blockade runners, which were boats used to ferry supplies past the Union forces.

More money is being sought from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue the research in Winyah Bay next year, Amer said.

"It's a large area we're working," Amer said. "It could be very long term. It could be months to years, depending on how much is there.

"We always find something; the question is, What is it?" The ultimate idea is to survey every square inch of water in South Carolina."

Underwater archaeologists have been surveying S.C. waters since 1998, Amer said.

In the past eight years, the underwater team has looked for the Le Prince, a 16th century French corsair or pirate ship that went aground near the entrance to Port Royal Sound, Amer said.

Amer also assisted with the search for the Hunley, a confederate submarine that was recovered intact in Charleston Harbor in 2000. Underwater archaeologists also have done research on the Harvest Moon, a Union flagship that remains in Winyah Bay.

The expedition
De Ayllon's expedition came to Georgetown shortly after the country was discovered by Christopher Columbus.

The Spanish had conquered Mexico and had established plantations in Cuba, said Jim Spirek, deputy state underwater archeologist.

The Capitana could have been about 120 feet long and possibly carried men, women and children as well as vital supplies.

"This would have been a fairly large galleon," Spirek said. "It was a big, bulky ship that would have been used to carry general merchandise and cargo."

Historical documents show that the passengers escaped, Amer said. The ship probably did not contain large supplies of gold or weapons but was possibly carrying tools and food, he said.

De Ayllon's expedition moved south in 1526, where another settlement was established, possibly in what is now Sapelo Island, Ga.

But that colony failed, too, after the colonists and de Ayllon died of fever.

A second explorer's attempt in 1559 to establish a colony near present-day Pensacola, Fla., was unsuccessful, Spirek said.

The first successful Spanish colony in the New World was established in 1565, in St. Augustine, Fla., he said.

If the Capitana or any cargo is found, little will be brought to the surface at first, Amer said.
Some sturdier objects that could prove the identity of the vessel could be recovered, but the rest will remain underwater, he said.

Because the Capitana was not a military vessel, Amer doubts there will be an attempt by the Spanish government to retain rights to the boat or cargo.

"This would be a private vessel, and as such, Spain could lay claim if they wanted to," Amer said.

"We would contact Spain, let them know we found something. They could provide money for research if we find artifacts on the vessel."


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