Changing Planet

Colonial Shipwrecks of Colombia: Investigating a Possible Structure Underwater

The remains of what appears to be a wall at the south end of Bahia de la Gloria at high tide, where the rocks meet the sandy seafloor.
Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/The 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. 

Aside from its two islands, the most obvious feature of Bahia de la Gloria is an elongated section of rocks that stretches from Isla Tarena to the mainland.  Locals call it “El Puente”, or the bridge.  While we continue to question whether or not it is manmade, it very much appears to be something constructed to operate as a breakwater and to create a small harbor.  We spent a full day measuring, mapping, walking, and snorkeling el puente, in order to determine of its dimensions and possible function.

Chris Horrell and I work with Juan Martin to measure and map the possible wall with a reel and a gps. Credit: Juan Martin/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University
Chris Horrell, Juan Martin, and Fritz Hanselmann measure and map the possible wall with a tape and a GPS.
Credit: Juan Martin/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

As always, we left with more questions than we set out to answer.  Is this really manmade?  If so, why are we not observing more material culture?  Santa María was only active for 14 years, so lack of long-term activity could account for one potential answer.  Could the now-meandered Río Tarena have deposited such a large quantity of stones in such a controlled manner?  Clearly, much more archival research into potential port sites associated with the first settlement in Tierra Firme is warranted and will be at the top of the list for Jose Espinosa, our project historian, on his next trip to the archives of Seville.

Funding and support provided by a National Geographic Society-Waitt Grant, the Universidad del Norte, the Ministerio de Culturathe Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e HistoriaHalcyon Dive Systems, Cabañas Anayansi, Dive and Green Dive Center, 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.

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