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article imageUNESCO sinks claim Haiti wreck was Christopher Columbus's ship

By Marianne BARRIAUX (AFP)     Oct 6, 2014 in World

UNESCO on Monday scuttled claims that a wreck found off Haiti was Christopher Columbus's flagship from his first voyage to the Americas after experts determined it was that of a ship from a later period.

Marine archaeologist Barry Clifford stirred up global excitement in May when he announced he believed he had identified the wreck of the Santa Maria, one of three ships Columbus led on his first crossing of the Atlantic that sank in 1492 off the northern coast of Haiti.

The UN cultural body subsequently dispatched a team of experts to the wreck, located off the town of Cap-Haitien, to examine the remains found in the area where Columbus said the ship ran aground.

"There is now indisputable proof that the wreck is that of a ship from a much later period," UNESCO concluded in a report.

- Late 17th or 18th century -

"Although the site is located in the general area where one would expect to find the Santa Maria based on contemporary accounts of Columbus's first voyage, it is further away from shore than one should expect," experts said in a final report.

"Furthermore, and even more conclusively, the fasteners found on the site indicate a technique of ship construction that dates the ship to the late 17th or 18th century rather than the 15th or 16th century."

They added that an artefact recovered on site could be the remains of protective copper sheathing, and if it was, then "the ship could even not be dated to a time before the late 18th century".

Columbus set sail on August 3, 1492 from Palos de la Frontera in southern Spain, with the Santa Maria, La Nina and La Pinta, searching for a shortcut to Asia.

On October 12 of that year, he is believed to have landed in Guanahani, which historians have identified as an island in the Bahamas, in what is popularly called the "Discovery of the Americas".

Columbus stopped in Cuba, and then the island of Hispaniola -- home to modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- before his Santa Maria hit a reef and went down on December 25, 1492.

The Spaniards built a fort near where the ship went down and then Columbus headed back to Spain to report to Queen Isabella on his trip.

By the time he returned the next year, the fort had been burned down, and the crew he had left had died or disappeared.

- Major wrecks in area -

The UNESCO team was headed up by Xavier Nieto, a Spanish underwater archaeologist with specialist knowledge of Iberian shipwrecks, and the dives took place in September.

In its final report, UNESCO said it was possible that, due to heavy sedimentation along the coast brought about by various rivers, the wreck had been buried over the past centuries.

"The ship may also, however, have been slowly worn down by the waves, potentially leaving remains on a reef or sandbank in the bay," it said, adding that Clifford had likely announced his discovery based on this second theory.

The UN cultural body called for more exploration in the area, which was subject to heavy shipping traffic for centuries, in order to find the Santa Maria and draw up an inventory of other major wrecks there.

It also called on Haiti -- one of the poorest countries in the world -- to enhance protection of its underwater heritage, which has been hit by looting.

Clifford is perhaps best known as the discoverer and excavator of the world's first fully verified pirate shipwreck, the Whydah, in 1984.

He and his team first investigated the wreck off Haiti in 2003 and brought up a cannon from the depths.

Clifford told CNN that archaeologists "misdiagnosed" the cannon at the time.

So this year, he returned to the wreck with a team of experts in tow and took careful measurements and photographs of the ship, before announcing he believed he had found the Santa Maria.

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