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Wood analysis supports claim that ship is the Vizcaina





Wood sample indicates ship about as old as the Vizcaina

by Eric Jackson

Columbia University researcher Dr. Brendan M. Buckley specializes in dendrochronology, the scientific technique of dating wood samples by their growth rings. Warren White, an amateur diver who found an old ship submerged in shallow water off of Playa Damas, a beach just east of the Colon province town of Nombre de Dios, sent Buckley a sample of wood from the ship, in hopes that it could more precisely date the find.

White believes that he found one of the ships from Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage of discovery, the Vizcaina. That vessel was abandoned in 1504. White came to that conclusion because the type of armaments --- lombard cannons lashed into place rather than mounted on carriages, stone mortar balls, etc. --- were typical of the early 16th century and not found on later ships, and because this wreck had no metal sheathing on its hull, which the Spanish crown ordered as a measure to prevent damage by teredo worms in 1508. By process of elimination, the only Spanish ship known to have been lost --- in this case by abandonment --- in the general vicinity before 1508 was the Vizcaina. The vessel’s size and type (a caravel) also match the Vizcaina’s general description.

The claim that White has found the Vizcaina has touched off some heated arguments from people whose research or writings would have to be revised and has been taken with the ordinary reserve by scientists and historians who want to see more proof. There is documentary evidence to bolster such skepticism. Columbus, whose navigational records tended to be messy and who moreover was insane during parts of his fourth voyage, left records in the Spanish archives that indicated that he left the Vizcaina at Portobelo, several miles to the west.

On this wreck there are guns from two ships --- before having to leave the leaking Vizcaina Columbus abandoned another vessel at or near Belen, on the Caribbean coast of Veraguas --- and White surmises that the discrepancy in the Spanish records was a deliberate falsification by Columbus, who hoped to return on a fifth voyage and retrieve the weapons. So far, however, he has not found the definitive proof that he’d like.

It turns out that the wood sample wasn’t big enough for Buckley to date by the techniques of his specialty. However, he forwarded it to a German physicist, Dr. Bernd Kromer, who works at radiometry lab at the University of Heidelberg. Kromer and his colleagues measure levels of Carbon-14 or other radioactive isotopes in once-living samples to determine when they lived. Sharing the project with Dr. Sahra Talamo, who did the actual Carbon-14 measurements, and researcher Mike Friedrich, a tree ring specialist who noted six “monster” rings that he thought unusual, Kromer and his colleagues estimated that the tree from which the sample with the big rings was taken was felled somewhere between 1480 and 1520. “It seems that the wood could have grown close to the date of the proposed abandonment of the Columbus fleet,” Kromer wrote in an email. “Of course that would not be a proof, but it certainly supports an early 16th century date for the ship.”

Friedrich posed a scientific question that could have some interesting historical implications. He wondered if the wood sample was from a New World tree. That question might be answerable by DNA testing. If it turns out that the ship was the Vizcaina and the wood did come from the Americas, then that would suggest repairs made in the course of the voyage.

Did Columbus attempt to repair his caravel with locally available wood that might not have had time to properly cure? If that was the case, it may have been a matter of little choice, or it may support the claim made by writer and environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale in his 1992 book “The Conquest of Paradise” that Columbus was incorrigibly negligent when it came to maintaining his ships.

Meanwhile, research and recovery work on the ship that may or may not be the Vizcaina has been paralyzed for more than one year by infighting within the Moscoso administration. Permits must be obtained from several government institutions and approved by the Comptroller General. Mireya’s people, who originally couldn’t be bothered with the find, are now fighting over what could be a lucrative opportunity to shake down foreign companies, museums or universities who want to work on the site for large payments. Add to that a National Institute of Culture that’s all but paralyzed by the scandal of the “inside job” theft of the priceless contents of the Reina Torres de Arauz Anthropology Museum’s Gold Room, and the 2003 Caribbean diving season, due to begin any day now, might also be lost.

It’s all frustrating to many centennial year tourists who are asking to see the artifacts that have been recovered, to historians and marine archaeology buffs who want to know more, to the folks who have done what salvage work has been done and haven’t been paid for their labor, and to Warren White. But maybe in this centennial year the bureaucratic logjam can be broken, and positive identification of that caravel off Playa Damas can be made.



Also in this section:
WHO, Increasing cancer risk

Wood analysis supports claim that ship is the Vizcaina