Ancient voyagers to the New World; Columbus may have missed the first boat

Pity poor Christopher Columbus.

Most every year, some new PhD dredges up fresh signs of pre-Columbian visits to the New World and the venerable explorer slips another notch from the high place he used to occupy in our history books.

Now, on the eve of Columbus Day, comes evidence from the floor of Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay that may prove others beat Columbus.

Maritime archaeologist Robert F. Marx, an American with three partners in the Brazilian firm Fenicia Pesquisas Arqueologicas, this week linked a number of underwater relics found in Rio Bay to an ancient shipwreck.

Marx calls the finds perhaps ''one of the most important discoveries ever made in the field of underwater archaeology.''

It is significant because, although most scholars believe that mariners beat Columbus to the New World by almost two millenniums, no one has been able to tie the many pre-Columbian artifacts scattered around the Americas to an actual voyage.

''No one,'' Marx says, ''has been able to explain convincingly how they got there.''

Actually, Marx's touted evidence is not new. Six years ago, Brazilian scuba diver Jose Texeira pulled up two large, encrusted Roman amphorae, ceramic jars later dated to the 2nd century BC, while spear fishing off the Ilha do Governador, about 10 miles out from Rio. The find sent ripples of excitement through the Brazilian press, which quickly identified the jars as Greek or Phoenician.

But scholars were skeptical, and many brushed off the affair as a headline-grabbing hoax. Further exploration was snagged in a wrangle between the Brazilian government, which monitors the coastal waters, and Texeira, who refused to divulge the location of his dive unless the government cut him in on an expedition.

When Marx first heard about the amphorae, he was told the urns probably were brought over much later, and either dumped or lost in the water. But last year, a fisherman in in waters several hundred miles north of Rio, pulled up a Phoenician-style platter. Marx's interest was piqued again.

''Why would anyone haul ancient amphorae from Europe and dump them in the sea 15 kilometers off the shore in dangerous waters?'' he asked rhetorically. And he noted that shards of amphorae recovered from the site were encrusted with a coral that no longer grows in polluted Guanabara Bay.

After a series of exploratory dives around the bay in recent days, Marx announced ''I'm positive it's an ancient shipwreck, possibly Phoenician, but probably Roman.''

Marx said he has so far located what is ''certainly a wreck site'' that stretches ''three tennis courts in size. I've dug a meter deep in mud with my own hands and come up with pieces of amphorae, and found others attached to coral and rock.''

A husky, ruddy Floridian, Marx is a veteran of some 2,000 excavations on land and in the water. He discovered two of Columbus' ships on the floor of the Caribbean, and helped uncover the bones of the explorer himself in a cathedral in Spain.

He was knighted by the Spanish crown for duplicating Columbus' voyage, down to the cumbersome costumes and 15th-century technology. He has been harassed by pirates, who once dynamited waters where he was diving, leaving him temporarily deaf.

Marx's worst problems have not been pirates, but what followed his tweeking the national pride of some 40 republics where he has worked.

Now, Marx says, Portugal has complained to Brazil that he has ''defamed'' Cabral by suggesting Brazil was discovered much earlier (even though history books document two Spanish voyages to Brazil six months before Cabral drifted there in 1500).

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