UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body rejects identification of wreck as Santa Maria

Mission Report

Paris, 6 October 2014 -  The recent UNESCO mission to Haiti, sent to investigate a wreck that the American explorer Barry Clifford had proposed as potentially being that of the flagship of Christopher Columbus, has confirmed that the wreck site is not that of the Santa Maria. Nails and pins found on-site were those of a more recent ship, being of a copper alloy, while the Santa Maria should have had iron and/or wood fasteners.

Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’ flagship during his first expedition to the Americas, is potentially the most important cultural heritage of the early period of contact between Europe and the Americas. According to Columbus’ diary, it was on the night of 24/25 December 1492 that the Santa Maria was pushed onto a reef near Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.

Earlier this year, Barry Clifford, an underwater explorer, claimed that a shipwreck on Gran Mouton Reef, Haiti (the exact place being called Coque Vieille Reef), might be that of the Santa Maria. Following Clifford’s announcement, the Ministry of Culture of Haiti had requested the assistance of the UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Its twelve experts were asked to verify the identification of the site and to create a national plan for the protection of and research into underwater cultural heritage in the waters of Haiti.

The team of experts sent to Haiti was headed by the internationally acclaimed underwater archaeologist Xavier Nieto Prieto, former head of the Spanish National Museum on Underwater Archaeology. It also included UNESCO staff, as well as experts from the Haitian Ministry of Culture.

The UNESCO mission recorded the site with the most advanced methods available and recovered a small sample of diagnostic artefacts that allowed the site to be dated. It also investigated a number of nearby wreck sites shown to be of the highest potential for scientific research. Moreover, the team contributed to increasing the safety of the sites in the bay by causing the arrest of a pillager.

The evidence collected concerning the location, nature and artefact content of the Coque Vieille site was then subjected to thorough investigation by an acclaimed team of experts.  Additional reputed international experts were consulted. The written report of this investigative mission was then adopted by the UNESCO Scientific and Technical Advisory Body.

The Advisory Body, in addition to rejecting the identification of the wreck site’s identification as Santa Maria, recommended a large, more thorough investigation of the archaeological sites around Cap-Haïtien, both on land and underwater. Such an investigation should contribute to the development of a national plan on underwater cultural heritage, as requested by the Minister of Culture of Haiti. The UNESCO experts recommended, moreover, a revision of national laws and strong measures to prevent the pillaging and destruction of underwater cultural heritage.

The UNESCO 2001 Convention is of central importance for underwater archaeology and comprehensively protects underwater cultural heritage against pillage and exploitation and guides its scientific research.

Photos from the Mission

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