IU archaeologist looks beyond possible discovery of Santa Maria

Children's Museum of Indianapolis
(WISH Photo/Brett Bensley)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Three weeks ago he was making international news as the archaeologist who will determine whether a shipwreck found in Haiti is the Santa Maria.

Wednesday, Charles Beeker was at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. He brought with him some special artifacts and word of a new opportunity to uncover other ships Christopher Columbus brought to the New World.

It’s a rare opportunity available only at the museum’s Treasures of the Earth exhibit. Students can study nearly 300-year-old objects brought back only four days ago from an underwater archaeological dig.

“They’re all from our 1725 Begonia shipwreck, a very important Spanish frigate that was coming back from Venezuala trying to go to Spain,” said Beeker, director of the Office of Underwater Science at Indiana University.

Beeker is adding duties as the Extraordinary Underwater Archaeologist-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum. It’s an opportunity to show rare finds that he has helped uncover. But perhaps no find has generated as much interest as the shipwreck that could be the Santa Maria.

“If it proves to be the Santa Maria, it was stripped by the Spanish,” Beeker said. “It was stripped by the treasure hunters. It’s not the culture or material; it’s what it means as the Santa Maria.”

Beeker said while everyone knows the Santa Maria, “they don’t know the Maria Gallante or the other ships that went to Isabella and in a hurricane of 1495 sank in the bay. Maybe as many as 17 ships were there. Certainly 6 to 9 were sunk.”

He and the team he works with have just gotten permission to spend the next four years in the Dominican Republic looking for the other ships.

“Isabela, where we are going, is going to be ships buried under the silt — high state of preservation. And these vessels were reported loaded to go to Spain, which means the cultural contact material is going to be phenomenal,” Beeker said.

Even when Beeker is not at the Children’s Museum, artifacts he has brought back from his dives are on display, including some from the ship of accused pirate Captain Kidd. Beeker says it could take as long as two years to determine if the recent discovery in Haiti is in fact the Santa Maria.

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