A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A shipful of weary, homesick sailors drifts toward the horizon. It's October 1492, and mutiny is in the air. The men give their admiral two days to spot land before they force him to turn back. So begins "Quest for Columbus: The Search for the Santa Maria," a Discovery Channel documentary premiering May 23, 9 p.m. ET, that follows two recent investigations into that maiden voyage to the New World. We all know the story from grade school: Columbus and his crew do finally make landfall, mix with the locals, and get into some trouble in their quest for gold. But the film focuses on what we don't know about that voyage, namely the final resting place of the sunken Santa Maria and the location of Columbus' first settlement, known as La Navidad.
In northern Haiti, a team led by University of Florida archaeologist Kathleen Deagan zeros in on the settlement. Meanwhile, several miles away and just off the coast, notorious treasure hunter Barry Clifford searches for the Santa Maria. The two groups make an unlikely pairing and don't have a lot in common other than that they don't have much to work with. Columbus had everything down to the nails of the Santa Maria salvaged after it ran aground on a reef on Christmas Day 1492, leaving little more than ballast and a few timbers. Similarly, the La Navidad team is lucky to find charcoal fragments, postholes, and a few telltale European artifacts left behind after the village was abandoned.
Given the scarcity of physical evidence, the film is surprisingly suspenseful. And although the end may be anticlimactic, "Quest for Columbus" breathes new life into a familiar story.
Colleen P. Popson is Washington D.C. correspondent for ARCHAEOLOGY.