The story behind the mysterious 200-year-old shipwreck found in Quintana Roo

04/06/2020
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13:07
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Antonio Díaz
The story behind the mysterious 200-year-old shipwreck found in Quintana Roo
The vessel could be of English origin - Photo: Taken from INAH's website

The story behind the mysterious 200-year-old shipwreck found in Quintana Roo

04/06/2020
13:07
Antonio Díaz
Mexico City
-A +A
The vessel was named "Manuel Polanco" after the fisherman who first spotted it

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The “pig iron “ ingots, pipes, a canyon of some 2.5 m long, and an anchor are some of the remains found in Banco Chinchorro that could have belonged to an English vessel by the late 18th century or the early 19th century.

Last February, a group of 12 experts undertook a journey to the Yucatán Peninsula and the Mexican Caribbean, mainly to the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve with the objective to make an inspection of a place mentioned by former fisherman Manuel Polanco.

Some years ago, as explained by Laura Carrillo Márquez, a researcher of the Underwater Archeology Subdirection (SAS) of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), Manuel Polanco told them about the existence of some objects in Banco Chinchorro.

“Since 2006, we’re working on the Banco Chinchorro Project, but it was until February that we had the opportunity to visit the southeast of this area. Engineer Peter Tattersfield was in charge of the logistics and then we had the opportunity to perform two brief inspections in the context; it was a general visit to locate the shipwreck, obtain its GPS location as a base for a wider work on this area in the future,” she said.

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In that visit to Banco Chinchorro, the 12 researchers performed two inspections, that is, they dived twice. Each inspection was comprised of a group of six researchers to locate the remains of the shipwreck named after Manuel Polanco.

Carrillo Márquez said that the inspections had to be “brief” because the environmental conditions were not ideal: the wind, the waves, and the currents were strong, but that did not prevent them to locate and analyze some characteristics of the vestiges.

“The shipwreck is located southeast, in the coral reef at a shallow depth of up to three meters; however, it was dangerous to perform the inspections in those conditions. The setting of the Chinchorro coral reef is shaped like the sole of a shoe. Other smaller reefs have formed in this barrier and it was on top of one of them that the vessel wrecked and due to the effects of the current and the wind, it disintegrated with time.”

Carrillo Márquez said that, with time, the organic elements, such as the wood, experience erosion that made them disappear, while solid elements such as the canyon, the anchor, and the pipes were left in the coral reef and they became one in the end.

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The environmental challenges
The remains of the “Manuel Polanco” vessels are not deep in the water: the anchor is almost one meter from the surface, the canyon is at two, and the ingots are between 2.5 and three meters deep.

Although the objects are not deep down in the water, Carrillo said that the context in which they were found is a factor that makes their study quite complicated.

According to the researcher, there are similar contexts in Mexico, such as the case of the Veracruz Reef System National Park (PNSAV), the Alacranes Reef National Park, and the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve.

“The three are reef formations immersed in sailing areas and all of them contain remains of shipwrecks. The “Manuel Polanco” is the number 70 that has been found in Chinchorro. Most of those [vessels] that have been found wrecked over the reef, others sank in the south or the north.”

Nevertheless, the vessel is located southeast and its location makes it a challenge, as asserts the researcher, because it is the place where the current is strong, in addition to there being waves the whole year.

Due to the environment, the experts must have more equipment that allows them to remain “steady” in the bottom and hence prevent the current from dragging or hitting them.

“Since there are many reef formations, we can get hurt as well as the remains; we have to be very careful. It’s also a challenge because the reefs grow in any solid surface and the cultural remains are an ideal soil for their development, therefore, it’s difficult for us to identify the objects.”

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The hypothesis to be confirmed
Laura Carrillo Márquez mentions that both she and her team are aware that the remains cannot be touched because, in addition to possibly damaging them, they could affect the organisms living in them, so the inspections are “as less intrusive as possible.”

Although they could not touch the vestiges, the researchers determined that the vessels used to be a sailboat due to its propulsion system.

“To know whether it moved with steam, we need to find furnaces; if it was a ship, [we need to find] propellers, engines, or axis. In this case, we did not find any evidence of steam or electric diesel propulsion system, which allowed us to suppose this vessel was propelled with a sail. We ignore the measures because they were two brief inspections.”

The objects that were found include covering sheets, an element that contributed to the dating process because wooden hulls used to be covered with sheets of different materials to protect the wood against “attacks” of sea worms or mollusks.

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“We found fragments of copper coating, as well as copper nails and bolts. Together, these referents allowed us to date [the vessel] at the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th century. It’s a preliminary hypothesis.”

Mexico is part of the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage that, among other things, proposes as the main option the “in situ conservation,” so the remains will not leave the sea.

“We need to take samples, perform special tests to know the kind of alloy, and to be able to determine the temporality with more precision. We hope to find another artifact that can be a time referent or of cultural affiliation.”

The researchers suggested the sailboat is of English origin based on the archeological elements, such as the copper coat, the canyon, and the anchor, while on the historic perspective, it is known that that area was highly used by the English in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“They are all hypothesis we need to prove or dismiss,” as stresses Laura Carrillo Márquez, however, for the moment, the researchers will wait for the COVID-19 health emergency to pass to be able to plan new inspections in the area.

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