November 3, 2001

Panama extracts artifacts from 16th century ship

NOMBRE DE DIOS, Panama (AP) --Cannons, swords and pottery shards
recovered this week from a 16th century ship just off Panama's coast
suggested the vessel may have been used by Christopher Columbus or one of
the earliest Spanish conquistadors

There is apparently no treasure aboard, but the story does involve an American
shipwreck hunter, Florida native Warren White, who first detected the remains of
the vessel while catching lobsters here in 1998.

White believes he found a Columbus ship, and experts say there's some evidence to
support that theory.

Excitement grew Thursday as small bronze cannons were hauled to the surface, and
more of this ship's wooden structure was surveyed, but definitive evidence -- a bell
or anchor that might have carried the vessel's name -- remained elusive.

"Our first hypothesis is that this is Columbus' ship, the Vizcaina," said Rafael
Ruiloba, director of the National Culture Institute, at the site near the port of Nombre
de Dios, 75 miles east of Panama City.

"On the other hand, it could be one of the ships of (conquistador Francisco)
Pizarro," Ruiloba said as he oversaw work at the site, about 30 yards off the coast.
"One thing is sure, and that is that we are looking at one of the earliest ships of the

Some evidence has surfaced that would support the idea that the 60 to 70-foot
vessel is indeed the Vizcaina, one of the larger boats Columbus used on his fourth
and final voyage to America.

Historical records indicate Columbus' crew scuttled the Vizcaina in 1503 after it
sprung leaks near Portobelo, about 18 miles away from Nombre de Dios.

The vessel was made with wooden pegs rather than iron nails -- an indication that it
is a very old wreck. Additionally, the ship's bottom is not covered with sheets of
lead, a practice the Spaniards began using in 1508 to combat marine worms that ate
wooden hulls.

The three five-foot cannons recovered so far, complete with stone projectiles the
size of soccer balls, match the kind of "lombard" cannons the earliest explorers and
conquerors would have used.

As divers worked in about 20 feet of water some 10 yards from shore, they spotted
a half-decayed wooden chest containing what were apparently swords. After raising
the chest, researchers quickly lowered it into the sea again, fearing that contact with
the air might damage it.

But questions remain: if the ship was intentionally scuttled, why were valuable
cannons and arms left aboard?

White suggests Columbus -- as an explorer, not a conqueror -- had little use for
cannons. Instead, White said, there is evidence that a more vital item was removed:
all the ship's sails and rigging.

Another factor to consider is that the wreckage lies on a route that also would have
been used by Pizarro, who conquered Peru for the Spaniards in 1532-1533. But
White remains steadfast in his belief that the ship was part of Columbus' fleet.

"The fact that the captain apparently ordered the ship sunk, and there isn't any lead
on the bottom, and that it carries the same kind of weaponry, leads us to believe this
is the Vizcaina," White said.

Previous reports that the sand and coral-covered wreck had been discovered in late
October by workmen loading beach sand for construction projects were unfounded.

White says, and Panamanian authorities agree, that he first brought the wreck to
their attention in 1998. But excavations did not begin until this week. He now works
as a volunteer government consultant aboard a ship loaned to the project by a private

 Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.