Archaeologists Hot on the Trail of Columbus' Sunken Ships

Jul 27, 2006
Archaeologists Hot on the Trail of Columbus' Sunken Ships
A 300-pound kedge anchor is about to be brought to the surface.

As luck would have it, time ran short, and the silt and mud in La Isabela Bay on the north coast of the Dominican Republic ran deep. Despite these setbacks, Indiana University archaeologists are confident they are closer to discovering some of Christopher Columbus' lost ships -- and the answer to a 500-year-old mystery, "What was on those ships?"

"The discovery of a Columbus shipwreck, let alone the finding of the flagship Mariagalante, would be a tremendous contribution to maritime archaeology," said Charles Beeker, director of Academic Diving and Underwater Science Programs in IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. "Perhaps more important would be the cargo. Were the ships laden with native Taino Indian artifacts heading to Spain? Such a find would shed new light on the nature of the contact period between the Old and the New Worlds."

Earlier this summer, Beeker and Geoffrey Conrad, director of IUB's Mathers Museum of World Cultures, took a team of faculty and graduate students to the Dominican Republic to explore intriguing magnetometer anomalies the IU researchers had discovered 10 years ago. The readings suggest large objects buried under silt and mud, and within coral colonies. The readings indicate also that the objects are scattered -- similar to how a shipwreck, or several for that matter, would appear -- in a 75-square-meter area.

In the years since the anomalies were discovered and mapped, Beeker, Conrad and their graduate students have returned yearly to the Dominican Republic to complete a variety of projects related to tourism, conservation and the archaeological exploration of village sites and ceremonial wells related to the Taino Indians.

La Isabela Bay was the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement established by Columbus, and the Taino were the first indigenous people to interact with Europeans. Beeker said much of the history of this period is based on speculation, something he and Conrad are trying to change.

Their research teams are multinational and multidisciplinary, tapping such resources as the Anglo~Danish Maritime Archaeological Team (ADMAT) -- a nonprofit educational organization -- and the Genetic Anthropology Laboratory in IUB's Department of Anthropology. The latest research team included ADMAT as well as four professors and 10 graduate students from HPER, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the IU departments of anthropology, biology and mathematics.

Among their latest efforts, they retrieved a 300-pound kedge anchor that could be from the Columbus era. The anchor, which is being conserved at the laboratory of the Oficina Nacional De Patrimonio Cultural Subacuàtico (ONPCS), was encrusted with dead as well as live coral within the area of interesting magnetometer anomalies. The live coral was removed from the anchor and cemented onto nearby coral colonies.

"We're strong advocates that you need to respect the biology when you excavate," Beeker said.

Beeker and Conrad's team used a water dredge to dig down to the most prominent magnetometer anomaly pinpointed. The pump, which acted like a vacuum cleaner, was able to dig an 8-foot hole through the silt and mud, with the magnetometer reading getting stronger as they went deeper. The team ran out of time, however, and had to postpone the search until later this summer. They are optimistic. When they return, they plan to determine which shipwreck they found, not whether one actually is buried in the bay.

Beeker said that several ships sank in La Isabela Bay during a hurricane in 1495. Researchers estimate that eight or nine vessels were lost in the bay, including smaller caravels and one or two larger store ships, or naos. One of the lost naos is believed to be the Mariagalante, Columbus' flagship on his second voyage to the New World. Documents indicate some of the ships carried cargo when they left for Spain, but Beeker said the contents are unknown.

Conrad and Beeker described the La Isabela Bay research project as a long-term investment by IU, which has funded much of the research. They also believe it is a project for which the land excavations and exploration of Taino village sites are as important as the underwater explorations.

"Everyone knows the name 'Columbus,'" Beeker said. "We want people to know Taino, too."

Source: Indiana University

Explore further: Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Archaeologists discover 1699 Captain Kidd Shipwreck

Dec 16, 2007

Resting in less than 10 feet of Caribbean seawater, the wreckage of Quedagh Merchant, the ship abandoned by the scandalous 17th century pirate Captain William Kidd as he raced to New York in an ill-fated attempt ...

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

8 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

8 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Turning off depression in the brain

Scientists have traced vulnerability to depression-like behaviors in mice to out-of-balance electrical activity inside neurons of the brain's reward circuit and experimentally reversed it – but there's ...

Is Parkinson's an autoimmune disease?

The cause of neuronal death in Parkinson's disease is still unknown, but a new study proposes that neurons may be mistaken for foreign invaders and killed by the person's own immune system, similar to the ...