'Colombus ship' discovered near Panama

Divers searching in shallow Caribbean waters have discovered the wreck of a Spanish galleon which archaeologists believe is part of the fleet used by Christopher Columbus on his final voyage to the Americas.

Divers searching in shallow Caribbean waters have discovered the wreck of a Spanish galleon which archaeologists believe is part of the fleet used by Christopher Columbus on his final voyage to the Americas.

The vessel, found last week by national culture institute divers in six metres of water off the coast of Panama's Colon province, is thought to be La Vizcaina, one of the four ships that sailed on Columbus's fourth voyage in 1501.

If it is confirmed to be La Vizcaina, it would be the first ship to be found from the early part of the Spanish Conquest.

The culture institute was alerted to the wreck when officials confiscated several stone cannonballs dating from the early 1500s from local divers in the nearby town of Portobelo in late October.

Officials of the institute, based in Panama City, said artefacts brought up from the site, including five cannon and a haul of pottery fragments, helped archaeologists date the wreck to the first wave of the Spanish Conquest.

"The recovered items place the find in a very narrow historical timeframe, which is the first part of the 16th century," Carlos Fitzgerald said.

"There is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that it is Columbus' ship, La Vizcaina."

"It's the first time that a caravel from the early conquest has been found anywhere in continental America," he added.

The twin-masted Vizcaina, thought to be oak or cedar hulled and with a displacement of around 100 tons, took part in a failed expedition to settle the mouth of the nearby Belen river in 1503.

According to contemporary accounts, the small flotilla had weighed anchor and set sail for Spain, when La Vizcaina began leaking. On Columbus's orders, the vessel was deliberately scuppered a short way from the coast.

"The wreck we found had not been salvaged of its weapons, as was common practice among seafarers at the time," Professor Fitzgerald said. "This concurs with Columbus's own account of the sinking."

Using a salvage boat, divers attached cables to five cannon found on the sunken vessel. The cannon were later identified by archaeologists as Lombards and Versos, the two types of weapon used to arm Columbus's vessels.

As the weapons were covered with a heavy encrustation of coral, researchers have been unable to tell whether they were cast in bronze or iron.

The institute director, Rafael Ruiloba, said researchers had identified recovered pottery shards as the shattered necks of amphorae, used during the conquest period to store olive oil in ships bound for the New World.

"Regardless of whether the vessel was La Vizcaina, it is a very important discovery," Professor Ruiloba said, spreading the brittle fragments out on his office desk.

"This is the first public find of a ship from the early conquest."

The institute, which is keeping a 24-hour watch over the dive site to safeguard it from treasure-hunters, called for help from abroad.

"Right now we need to continue with the careful excavation of the vessel where it lies," Prof Ruiloba said.

"We need help, as our institute does not have a specialised team able to deal it."

Tim Gaynor in Panama City

The GuardianTramp

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