Ancient History and New Friendships: Binational Cooperation in East National Park, Dominican Republic

Charles D. Beeker
Director of Underwater Science and Educational Resources
Indiana University


John W. Foster
Senior State Archaeologist
California State Parks

What started as a search for a ship sailed by Christopher Columbus, has taken on new dimensions and grown into a model of scientific cooperation between the Dominican Republic and Indiana University.

In 1993, Charles Beeker was contacted by Pedro J. Borrell of the Comision de Rescate Arquelogico Submarino to determine the University's interest in searching for a possible Columbus shipwreck in the shallow waters of Bahia Isabela. It was a golden opportunity to perhaps discover a fragile piece of history; it was here that Columbus established the first capital of the New World in 1494. Within the first two years, the Isabela colony was stricken by disease and struck by two hurricanes. Historical accounts note that some six vessels may have been lost in the bay.

Working with the Comision and representatives of the Isabela National Park, Beeker assembled a team to evaluate the site and determine its potential to yield Fifteenth Century shipwreck remains. The conditions are excellent for preservation of wood and artifacts -- shallow water, mud and sand bottom, and very little disturbance since the Columbus era. The colony was abandoned in 1498 and a new capital was located at Santo Domingo on the opposite coast.

With funding from Nineteenth Star Productions of Indianapolis, this project is proceeding and promises excellent results. Two magnetometer surveys have located about 15 anomalies in the mud bottom. Excavations are planned for Spring, 1997 to test them and determine their origin and significance. This approach has been approved by the Comision, and their staff has assisted in underwater archaeological studies to date. All artifact remain the property of the people of the Dominican Republic. It is hoped that if successful, an exhibit of Columbian-era artifacts will travel to the US for educational purposes.

It became apparent in working with the Faro a Colon Museum in Santo Domingo that there were many other fascinating sites worthy of scientific study. Fortune smiled on the project when Don Peter Morales Troncoso, Governor of the Museum and President of the Patronato Rector of the East National Park was introduced to Charles Beeker and John Foster. They discovered they had several important interests in common: a love of history and a desire to learn more about the conquest period on the island of Hispanola.

Governor Morales arranged for the team to visit East National Park. He also introduced Sta. Luisa DePena, Director of Exhibits at the Faro a Colon Museum. Together they pledged support for the Film Project if it was to expand to encompass other important archaeological sites.

Morales urged the team to visit two fascinating areas within East National Park. One was the Jose Maria Cave, originally discovered about 1980, it contains some 1,200 Taino paintings. A member of the Patronato, and a specialist in Taino rock art, Adolfo Lopez joined the team to assist in the interpretation of the Jose Maria Cave. He explained how the painted murals depict the rich culture, ritual life, origins and calendric observations of the native people of Hispanola. Of particular interest is what may be a depiction of a Spanish face toward the back of the deep cave. On an nearby wall, what is thought to be a tribute scene. Agricultural products (possibly yuca and guayiga breads) are being produced under the watchful eye of the Taino cacique. On the far right is a rendering of what might be the first native image of a Spanish caravel in the New World. We know from accounts of Bartoleme de Las Casas that the Taino of this region agreed to pay a tribute to the Spanish in order to establish peace in 1503. This scene may be the Taino record of that great event -- one that they had every reason to assume would save them from the brutal fate which befell other Taino groups in the island. The peace would not last, however, and a subsequent war annihilated the Taino of this area.

Their voices are being heard again, however through the careful archaeological study of another site within East National Park. With the assistance of two prominent specialists, Ing. Elpidio Ortega and Dr. Abelardo Jiménez Lambertus, considerable new insights have been uncovered at a cenote deep in the jungle. This site is known at Manantial de la Aleta ("spring of the fin"). After some 80 dives in the deep sinkhole, a picture of Taino ritual life is beginning to emerge. The site seems to have served a ceremonial function. Many intact pottery vessels have been recovered and they are predominately decorated food and storage vessels. Food remains, fragile gourds and wooden objects have also been recovered. The assemblage from La Aleta include a rare "duho" the ceremonial stool of Taino royalty. As the artifacts were being recovered,Dominican experts on Taino culture and Park management were closely involved in their identification and conservation. Gov. Morales descended into the cenote to view the spectacular sight. Guidance was also offered by Gabriel Valdez, representing National Parks of the Dominican Republic. All artifacts have received excellent conservation treatment at the Faro a Colon museum.

The research team has received wonderful accommodations at the Hotel Dominicus, a modern resort hotel adjacent to East National Park. The owners and staff of this beautiful facility have been of great assistance to the binational team conducting archaeological studies. Tremendous logistical support has made the work a pleasure.

We look forward to many more exciting discoveries, and a long period of cooperation between Indiana University and the Universidad Catholica de Santo Domingo. California State Parks also plans on establishing mutual link with East National Park and the Faro a Colon Museum. Archaeology, Underwater Parks and Eco-tourism are topics being discussed. With students from both countries working together, there is much to discover about the people who greeted Columbus when the Old World encountered the New. These sites are a rich legacy of that history -- five centuries ago -- when the world was changed forever.