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City of Towers

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, February 11, 2013

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Modern Panama City has a love affair with height. Soaring condos line the city’s waterfront. The source of this modern obsession might be visible in the very oldest part of the city—the restored bell tower at Panama Viejo, the ruins left behind following Captain Henry Morgan’s sacking of the city in 1671. One of the few Panamanian archaeologists, Tomás Mendizábal, former director of Panama’s National Museum, used to dig at the site with Patronato Panamá Viejo, the preservation group responsible for its upkeep. Panama Viejo is “the only place in Panama you can actually do research and archaeology in a country where such things are unusual,” says Mendizábal.

 

Just under the Spanish settlement at Panama Viejo is evidence for 1,500 years of pre-Columbian occupation. Among the early finds are several complete urn burials, as well as a burial of a woman who was laid on a bed of skulls and surrounded by nine more skulls. The find predates the Spanish town by 300 years.

 

The existing structures, some of which have been restored, are meant to represent the Spanish town in its final moments. The Spanish wrote that Morgan and his men burned the town on their way out. Accounts speak of a tall column of smoke. But evidence of the city’s demise has been hard to come by, says Mendizábal, who is also Panamanian codirector of the Lost Ships of Henry Morgan Project. In the ruins of what would have been city hall, on a staircase landing, is a layer of ash and charred stone steps (and the remains of a sword) that can be dated to the sacking. Across the plaza, there are layers of roofing tiles where ceilings caved in, but they were not burned. There is no other evidence of fire anywhere else. “Not one bit of ash,” says Mendizábal. “There isn’t a smoking gun, unless the whole town is a smoking gun.” This apparent lack of evidence for the well-documented burning of the town presents a puzzle, and makes the search for other evidence of Morgan’s presence in Panama even more interesting.

 

Mendizábal also sees the search for the remains of Morgan’s raid through a local perspective. It wasn’t just a pirate attack, it was also the destruction of a city and the intimidation and torture of a populace. “If people knew what pirates did,” he says, “it wouldn’t be quite so romantic.”

 

Main Article:
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Pirates of the Original Panama Canal

Horseshoe Wreck

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, February 11, 2013

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In 2010, a team led by Fritz Hanselmann of Texas State University retrieved six cannons that may have belonged to notorious privateer Captain Henry Morgan from Lajas Reef in Panama. A year later, Hanselmann returned to the Caribbean mouth of the Panama Canal with a crack team of maritime archaeologists to look for more. Investigating one of the anomalies recorded during magnetometer surveys, the team saw what appeared to be a rocky coral outcrop. Further investigation showed it to be encrusted wood. Within an hour, Hanselmann and his team had found a wooden chest with a latch on it.

 

horseshoe-wreck-sealsAt the beginning of the 2012 season, Hanselmann and his team returned to the site for more investigation and documentation. The wreck is nestled in the soft sandy seafloor under 25 feet of water. Using a makeshift water cannon, Hanselmann cleared the accumulated sand from the wreck, revealing a strange grid: a floor of wooden boxes, packed tightly, in perfect rows. The tops of a few of the boxes are gone and their contents visible, including concreted masses of horseshoes (providing the wreck with its name, the “Horseshoe Wreck,” though they’re more likely to have been used on donkeys), in addition to nails, and other supplies. Some of the wood carries a herringbone pattern, perhaps from nets used to secure it on the ship. The team has documented more than 75 chests and portions of the wooden hull. Lead cargo seals indicate it was most likely a Spanish merchant ship. One candidate is Chaperone, a ship from the Tierra Firme Armada known to have foundered in heavy seas in 1681 at the mouth of the Chagres, or it may be a barge that sank while removing Chaperone’s cargo was being removed. In providing a picture of Spanish commerce at a time when their New World empire was faltering, the wreck offers more information about the struggling economy of the Spanish Main when Morgan arrived.

 

For example, one of the seals has a fleur-de-lis on it, suggesting French origin. At the time, the Spanish had clamped down on trade with external parties. But people in the overstretched empire may have had to trade wherever and with whomever they could. The seal hints at an “undocumented, unspoken black market occurring across nationalities,” says Hanselmann. Perhaps this economic strain is one reason that Morgan met with so little resistance in his march to Panama City.

 

“They’re all intertwined and they’re all interconnected,” says Hanselmann of the Horseshoe Wreck and the other wrecks—Morgan’s—he still hopes to find.

 

Main Article:
captain-morgan-mainbar-item
Pirates of the Original Panama Canal

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