Haiti

Possible Columbus shipwreck off Haitian coast under scrutiny

A ballast pile under the water off Haiti’s northern coast is examined by a team from UNESCO, which recently investigated the wreck that was discovered by U.S. explorer Barry Clifford. Clifford is certain the remains are that of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria flagship.
A ballast pile under the water off Haiti’s northern coast is examined by a team from UNESCO, which recently investigated the wreck that was discovered by U.S. explorer Barry Clifford. Clifford is certain the remains are that of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria flagship. COURTESY OF UNESCO

UNESCO says the remains of a Haitian shipwreck, which a U.S. underwater explorer believes comes from Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria flagship, requires further investigation.

A UNESCO team led by the former head of the Spanish National Museum on Underwater Archaeology, Xavier Nieto Prieto, recently examined the wreck off Cap-Haïtien in northern Haiti and collected samples as part of the investigation.

The wreck was first discovered by explorer Barry Clifford, who earlier this year alerted Haitian authorities. He said he was certain that he had found the Holy Grail of shipwrecks but needed to investigate further. Officials formed a commission, put Clifford on it and then requested UNESCO’s assistance.

But Clifford wasn’t invited to join the UNESCO team. He and Charles Beeker, a leading maritime archaeologist and director of Indiana University’s underwater science program, were rejected by UNESCO’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body.

Ulrike Guerin, who is responsible for underwater cultural heritage issues at UNESCO, said the two were rejected on several grounds, including a lack of scientific background, proof of available funding and competence. The team proposed by Clifford and Beeker, he said, “does not include members that have a proven competence with researching wrecks of potential Iberian origin and are in a very fragile state of preservation.”

Beeker said the decision made no sense given that he and Indiana University were endorsed by UNESCO to document Columbus artifacts at La Isabela, Dominican Republic.

“Seems odd UNESCO can endorse IU for documentation and conservation of these artifacts in DR, but questions IU qualifications to identify 15-16th century artifacts in Haiti and instead wants their own Iberian experts from Spain to usurp IU,” he said in an email. “Sure seems like political decisions.”

As part of its scrutiny, the UNESCO team recovered samples of diagnostic artifacts to date the site, and investigated other nearby shipwrecks.

“The evidence collected concerning the location, nature and artifact content,” UNESCO said, “will now be subjected to thorough investigation by an acclaimed team of experts.”

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