Changing Planet

Colonial Shipwrecks of Colombia: Exploring an Unknown Wreck

Archaeologist Bert Ho takes notes on the shipwreck. Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University
Archaeologist Bert Ho hovers over a pile of cannons and an anchor, taking notes on the shipwreck.
Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

National Geographic Grantee and Texas State University Research Faculty Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann and a top-notch team of archaeologists from Colombia and the United States are leading an expedition to locate and document historic shipwrecks off of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Follow along with Fritz’s updates from the field.

After a week of preparation and shakedown dives, we began our search for shipwrecks off the coast of Cartagena.  Working with our project partners and volunteer divers at La Tortuga Dive School, we were made aware of a site with anchors and cannons…which immediately made us wonder if it would be a shipwreck.

Determined to find out, the next day we travel offshore to dive the site.  Suiting up and dropping into a strong current, we glide over a reef in search of the site.  Our excitement grows when we see the first coral-encrusted cannons and when we reach the main area of the site, we realize that it is indeed a shipwreck!  Despite the current, we begin our efforts to document over 30 cannons, 7 anchors, and other material culture evidenced throughout the course of our initial documentation of the wreck.  Our survey methodology during this project is that of non-disturbance, meaning that we don’t remove any artifacts or disturb the site in any form or fashion.  This means that proper buoyancy control, or the ability to maintain a neutral position in the water column and hover, is of the utmost importance, as this allows us to work efficiently and carefully and do no harm to the site.  With two dives completed and having spent almost three hours underwater, we return to shore with many questions regarding the history behind this particular sunken ship.  Where did the ship come from?  What was its purpose and why was it there?  How did it sink?  We are also left wondering what else might be out there…

Funding and support provided by a National Geographic Society-Waitt Grant, the Universidad del Norte, the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, the Centro de Investigaciones Oceanográficas e Hidrográficas of the Dirección General Marítima, the Agencia Presidencial de Cooperación Internacional de ColombiaLa Tortuga Dive SchoolHalcyon Dive Systems, the Way Family Foundation, and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Frederick "Fritz" Hanselmann is Research Faculty, who serves as the Chief Underwater Archaeologist and Diving Program Director with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. He is also the director of The Meadows Center's Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Initiative. Fritz learned how to swim at age three, and has been in love with the water ever since, having been taught to breath hold dive by his grandfather diving for golf balls tied in a sock in the Gulf of Mexico. Having worked on underwater sites from a wide variety of time periods, his research ranges from submerged prehistoric deposits in springs and caves to historic shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, abandoned by Captain Kidd in 1699 off the coast of Hispaniola. Fritz led the first-ever archaeological survey of the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama as the initial phase of the ongoing Río Chagres Maritime Landscape Study. One aspect of this study is the Lost Ships of Henry Morgan Project, the search for the famous privateer's sunken ships. He is one of the Principal Investigators of the Monterrey Shipwreck Project in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the deepest shipwreck excavation ever conducted in North America, in collaboration with three federal agencies, three universities, and three non-profit organizations. Fritz is also the co-director of the Sunken Ships of Colombia project, which focuses on finding, documenting, studying, and managing historic shipwrecks along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The Spring Lake Underwater Archaeology Project on the university's campus also falls under his supervision and he assists other projects in Mexico and Texas as part of the Initiative. Fritz also focuses on capacity building and training for archaeologists and heritage managers in less developed countries, as well as the development of marine protected areas and underwater preserves. He is a GUE Cave and Technical Diver, a Nautical Archaeology Society Tutor, a certified scuba instructor, an ambassador for Aquadive Watches, and a fellow of the Explorer’s Club. Fritz regularly gives public lectures and presentations for museums, universities, and other organizations.
  • Ed Cannon

    The work has to be exiting yet can be dangerous as well. The history of these lost vessels would keep me intrigued.

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