Researchers narrow search for remains of Don Quixote author

miguel de cervantes statue

Researchers believe they may have found the remains of the man said to be the author of the first modern European novel, beneath the chapel of a cloistered convent in Spain.

Experts searching for the remains of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes said earlier this month that they found wooden fragments of a casket bearing the initials “M.C.” containing bones beneath the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid’s historic Barrio de las Letras, or Literary Quarter, according to the Associated Press.

Archaeologists are seeking to solve the centuries-old mystery of where the famed Spanish writer was laid to rest. The initials on a plank of the coffin were formed with metal tacks embedded into the wood.

While the bones of at least 10 people were found inside the niche containing the broken wooden planks of the coffin, some of the remains belonged to children.

Cervantes’ remains went missing in 1673 when work was undertaken at the convent. They were thought to have initially been taken to another convent before being returned, according to the Daily Mail.

Researchers are examining the bones to try to determine whether Cervantes’ are among them. Cervantes, who was 69 when he died in 1616, left several clues that should aid investigators with their probe, including:

  • He had just six teeth when he died; and
  • He suffered three wounds during the famed Battle of Lepanto, including one that left one of his arms withered.

Cervantes’ influence on the Spanish language is such that it is often called the “the language of Cervantes.”

His magnum opus, fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, follows the adventures of Don Quixote, a landless nobleman who has imbibed too many chivalric novels and lost touch with reality. In a bid to bring justice to the world, he turns knight errant, recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his faithful squire, and roams the world in search of adventure.

Cervantes himself led a fascinating life. Born in 1547, he had by 1569 moved to Rome, where he worked as chamber assistant to a cardinal.

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Mysterious stone carving shows up at British yard sale


A British archaeologist and television producer, perusing a yard sale in Leicester, England, came across an item being sold as garden ornament that was unlike other objects being proffered.

Instead of a garden-variety garden ornament, the stone carving had a complex pattern that “may be some form of writing,” according to James Balme, who purchased the article.

Weighing approximately 60 pounds, the stone is about 18 inches long and 5-1/2 inches wide at its base.

The stone appears to have been used as “a keystone from an archway or indeed a vaulted ceiling,” according to Balme.

While its exact date is uncertain, Balme believes it’s from the Anglo-Saxon period, which began when the Romans abandoned Britain around 410 AD and ended with William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, according to the online publication RedOrbit.

The sandstone carving has been used as a garden ornament for several years, Balme told the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten.

In an effort to identify the use and exact date of the stone carving, Balme is turning to social media such as Twitter to try to learn more about the stone.

(Top: Stone found by James Balme on sale as a garden ornament in Leicester, England.)

Canadian remains believed to be those of Irish Famine victims

coffin ship 1

More than a million Irish died as a result of the Great Famine that struck the island in the 1840s. Another 2 million emigrated in a desperate bid for a better life, with many setting sail for North America. What’s less well known is that among those who departed amid the tragedy of the Great Hunger, an estimated 100,000 died in transit.

Bones discovered on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula in 2011 have recently been identified as those of children, aged seven to 12, believed to have been Irish who died fleeing the famine.

Vertebra and jaw bones are among remains confirmed by Parks Canada following three years of research to be those of malnourished children. It seems likely they died while fleeing the Great Hunger almost 170 years ago, according to IrishCentral.

Many of those two million who left Ireland traveled to America on ‘coffin ships,’ which were themselves deadly.

Coffin ships were crowded and disease-ridden, with poor access to food and water. They usually transported the poorest of the poor, and suffered mortality rates as great as 30 percent.

Owners of coffin ships provided as little food, water, and living space as was legally possible – if they obeyed the law at all. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships because so many bodies were thrown overboard

One of these ships, the Carricks, set sail from Ireland to Quebec City in 1847. It sank off Cap-des-Rosiers, about 500 miles northeast of its goal, and 87 people died. The 100 survivors were taken in by families in the village.

A monument was erected in 1900 to remember the victims. In 2011, skeletal remains were discovered 40 yards away from the marker. Without DNA evidence and carbon dating it’s uncertain whether the children traveled aboard the Carricks.

Researchers were able to determine that children – two of them between seven and nine years old and another as old as 12 – showed evidence of rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, and malnourished, according to the publication.

Georges Kavanagh, a resident of Gaspé, can trace his ancestors back to the victims and survivors of the shipwreck. He told the Washington Post that he plans to ensure they get a proper reburial.

He said, “I have a link to these people – I almost consider them my family. Who wouldn’t want their ancestors to get a peaceful rest?”

The Irish famine is commonly attributed to widespread potato blight that led to devastation of the staple crop of millions of Irish, resulting in starvation. This despite the fact that Ireland was still producing and exporting butter, peas, salmon, rabbit, lard, herring, honey, tongues, onions, seed and more.

These commodities were shipped out of Ireland to Britain, demonstrating what could be at best be termed a misguided policy on the part of the United Kingdom, policy that was instrumental in the disaster.

Between death and emigration, Ireland’s population fell by an estimated 20 to 25 percent, and even today is still below pre-Famine levels.

(Top: Drawing of a “coffin ship” preparing to leave Ireland for North America.)

Bay Area’s ‘Titanic’ discovered beyond Golden Gate Bridge

rio de janeiro

More than a century after the SS City of Rio de Janeiro slipped beneath the chilly waters off the coast of San Francisco, taking 128 individuals with her, researchers have located the final resting place of the ill-fated vessel.

The steamer, carrying 210 people, struck jagged rocks while traveling through heavy fog near Fort Point, at the southern end of the Golden Gate Strait, near today’s Golden Gate Bridge, and sank within 10 minutes.

The disaster, called the Bay Area’s Titanic, is considered the worst shipwreck in San Francisco history.

New sonar maps show the mud-covered grave of the City of Rio 287 feet below the surface, according to Live Science.

Most of the passengers and nearly all of the crew were Chinese, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The 345-foot ship’s last voyage began in China, with stops in Yokohama, Japan; and Honolulu, Hawaii, before heading for San Francisco Bay. The Chronicle described the ship’s final hours:

Fog obscured the Golden Gate on the night of Feb. 21, 1901, so Capt. William Ward anchored the ship just off the Cliff House, in sight of San Francisco.

But before dawn, the fog seemed to lift, and after consulting with Capt. Frederick Jordan, the bar pilot, Ward weighed anchor and headed for the Golden Gate. The fog closed in again, however, and about 5:30 a.m. Feb. 22, the Rio ran onto the rocks.

There was tremendous confusion, according to accounts at the time. The officers and crew spoke different languages, and the lifeboats were never launched. The ship’s lights went out, and the ship drifted off the rocks and sank.

“Fishermen in the area, hearing the ship’s distress calls, helped rescue 82 survivors, many plucked from makeshift rafts and floating wreckage,” according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which helped located the City of Rio. “The dead included Chinese and Japanese immigrants as well as the US Consul General in Hong Kong, who was returning to the US with his wife and two children. The entire family died in the tragedy.”

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Slave wharf remnants found at planned African-American site


In a serendipitous bit of good fortune, archaeologists probing the site of a planned $75 million International African American Museum in Charleston believe they have found evidence of the old wharf where tens of thousands of enslaved blacks first set foot in North America.

Researchers working with Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting have found timbers and bricks thought to have been part of a waterfront wharf and warehouse, uncovered during a preliminary study of the site.

The artifacts are thought to have been part of a wharf built in the 1760s by Revolutionary War patriot Christopher Gadsden using slave labor.

The wharf, the largest in North America, was built to service the rice trade, once a staple of South Carolina’s economy, according to research by Robert Macdonald, a consultant for the International African American Museum.

In time, however, the wharf “morphed into an entry point for more than 100,000 slaves during its lifetime,” according to the Charleston Post and Courier. “It could hold six ships at a time, and included an 840-foot quay and warehouses. Enslaved people were held there in crowded conditions as they awaited the auction block or transport to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.”

Charleston was the nation’s capital of the slave trade, the place where many of those who were enslaved first landed in the New World.

During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, about 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought into the country passed through Charleston Harbor. While many of these were sold around the South, a significant number remained in South Carolina.

By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the United States, and 400,000 of them – 10 percent – lived in South Carolina. Blacks, both enslaved and free, made up nearly 60 percent of the state’s population.

It’s estimated that as many as 40 percent of African slaves brought to the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries walked across Gadsden’s wharf.

A draft of the results of the initial study at the museum site, released last week, described how archaeologists dug three trenches at the site. They found bricks from the wall of a warehouse and fragments of timbers thought to come from the framing of the historic wharf.

“We believe these are actual elements of Gadsden’s Wharf. It’s huge for a preliminary first dig,” said Felicia Easterlin, the museum’s program manager.

Remnants of the wharf or the warehouse were found in all three trenches, she added.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has said he hopes the money will be in place by early 2016 so construction of the museum can begin. If that schedule holds, the museum should open in 2018.

(Top: View of Antebellum Charleston looking toward Gadsden Wharf. Source: The International African American Museum.)

German submarine, Allied freighter found off NC coast


Researchers working off the coast of North Carolina recently discovered predator and prey lying within a few hundred yards of each other on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The freighter Bluefields and the German submarine U-576, which sank the former on July 15, 1942, and was then sunk by other Allied vessels, were found in 690 feet of water in August following a five-year search led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The vessels were lost during the Battle of the Atlantic, which included the German submarine fleet battling Allied conveys and naval ships.

The loss of the Bluefields and U-576 came during a period of intense warfare between convoys and U-boats in the area off Cape Hatteras during the six-month period following the United States’ entrance into the conflict.

Although German submarines had wreaked havoc on Allied ships along the East Coast prior to US entry into the war in late 1941, the action was particularly heavy during the first half of 1942.

An estimated 90 vessels – including four U-boats – were sunk off North Carolina between January and July 1942. It was “almost a ship every other day going down,” NOAA maritime archaeologist Joe Hoyt, the chief investigator on the project, told the Washington Post.

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Officials say shipwreck off Haiti is not Columbus’ Santa Maria

Santa Maria stamp

It appears that the shipwreck discovered earlier this year off the coast of northern Haiti is not that of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, according to the UN cultural agency.

UNESCO released a report earlier this month that concluded that a shipwreck in the Caribbean was likely from a 17th or 18th century vessel.

US explorer Barry Clifford had announced in May that he believed he had found the Santa Maria near the city of Cap-Haitien.

The ship, Columbus’ flagship from his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere, struck a reef and was abandoned in December 1492. Columbus returned to Spain with his two remaining ships, the Niña and the Pinta, beginning in January 1493.

“UNESCO said a team of experts who explored the site at the request of the Haitian government determined the wreckage was from a more recent vessel for reasons that included the discovery of copper nails and pins, used to fasten ship components, at the site,” according to an Associated Press report. “The Santa Maria would have used components of iron or wood, the agency said.”

The experts also believe that contemporary accounts, including Columbus’ own journal, indicate that the wreck is too far from the shore to be that of the Santa Maria, according to CNN.

The report added that it is possible the actual wreckage of the Santa Maria may be buried under what is now land because of heavy sedimentation from nearby rivers. It also recommended further archaeological investigation of the area.

The Santa Maria wasn’t a very big ship by modern standards, being about 60 feet long and weighing about 100 tons.

Clifford still stands by claim, calling the UNESCO report flawed because the agency’s experts did not consult him or the photos and charts he and his associates made of the wreckage site, according to the wire service.

He also said the copper components could have been used on the Santa Maria or the material came from another shipwreck that cross-contaminated the site in an area where a number of ships are known to have sunk.

“The explorer had reached his conclusion based on the location of the wreckage, the presence of the type of stones used for ballast in that era as well as a type of cannon that was there when he first took photos of the site in 2003 but had apparently been looted when he returned this year,” according to the Associated Press.

In its report, UNESCO faulted Clifford for announcing his findings in the media before officially informing the Haitian government of his intention to continue his research in the bay of Cap-Haitien.

(Top: 1892 US postage stamp featuring the Santa Maria.)