(HAITI) - An Indiana University anthropologist is part of the team investigating a shipwreck off the cost of Haiti. Archaeologist Barry Clifford says he has found what he believes is Christopher Columbus' flagship vessel the Santa Maria.
If the claim is confirmed, it would go down as one of the most significant underwater archaeological discoveries ever. The Santa Maria was the flagship of Christopher Columbus' initial voyage to the Americas in 1492.
"Every single piece fits. Now, of course, we have to go through the whole archeological process, and we plan to do that within the next few months, but I feel very confident that we've discovered the site," he told CNN.
Indiana University Professor Charles Beeker, director of the IU Office of Underwater Science, has visited the shipwreck with Clifford and is currently in the Dominican Republic for ongoing research.
Geoffrey Conrad, professor emeritus of anthropology at IU Bloomington and a collaborator with Beeker on archaeological research in the Caribbean, notes that the location of the discovery is consistent with the location where Columbus' logbook indicates the ship ran aground.
"It's in the right place," Conrad said in a press release from Indiana University. "It's the best candidate yet for the Santa Maria."
Now the investigation into the shipwreck will include a scientific diving expedition and underwater archaeological excavation. The next phase of the project, will likely attempt to recover artifacts while trying to cause minimal impact to the site. But, if research findings indicate that the shipwreck is likely the Santa Maria, a full excavation will be undertaken, officials say, in cooperation with the Haitian government.
Clifford's announcement involves a wreck he and his team investigated in 2003. A cannon was found as part of the wreck. But, Clifford told CNN, archaeologists at the time "misdiagnosed" the cannon.
Two years ago, after having researched the type of cannon used in Columbus' time, "I woke up in the middle of the night and said, 'Oh my God,' " Clifford told CNN. He realized the 2003 find might have been the one.
A couple of weeks ago, he returned to the wreck with a group of experts. The team measured and photographed the ship. But some items, including the cannon, had been looted from the ship in the intervening years, Clifford said.
The ship "still has attributes that warrant an excavation to determine the site's identity," archaeologist Charles Beeker of Indiana University said Tuesday. "Barry may have finally discovered the 1492 Santa Maria."
The evidence, Beeker said, is "very compelling."
The ship was found in the exact area where Columbus said the Santa Maria ran aground more than 500 years ago, The wreck is stuck on a reef off Haiti's northern coast, 10 to 15 feet beneath the water's surface.
Clifford plans to go back to Haiti next month to meet with authorities and decide what steps to take next.
Wrecked in 1492
It was the flagship of Columbus' small fleet that set sail from Spain in August 1492 under the sponsorship of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I.
The voyage aimed to find a westward route to China, India and the gold and spice islands of the East. But the land the sailors set eyes on in October 1492 was an island in the Caribbean.
Among the islands on which Columbus set foot was Hispaniola, which is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Columbus established a fort in Haiti.
That December, the Santa Maria accidentally ran aground off the island's coast. Some planks and provisions from the wrecked ship, which was about 117 feet (36 meters) long, were used by the garrison at the fort, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Columbus set off back to Spain with the two remaining ships, the Nina and the Pinta, in January 1493.
Archaeological study needed
Archaeologists will have to excavate and examine the ship found off Haiti in order to determine whether it is, in fact, the Santa Maria.
Most of the ship is in shape and will be possible to excavate with the help of the Haitian government, said Clifford, who made a name for himself salvaging pirate ships off the coasts of Cape Cod and Madagascar.
His team has used sophisticated metal detectors and sonar scans to study the remains.
The ship is the right size, he said, and stones found at the site match the kind from the part of Spain where the ship was built.
"I don't think any of us should take for granted what has been written," Clifford said. "This is a tremendous touchstone to that period in time. We don't know what secrets are going to be held on the ship."
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