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Discovery of iron anchors raises hopes of finding Hernán Cortés's ships

Underwater archaeologists have found two iron anchors just offshore from the spot Hernán Cortés first set foot in Mexico, raising hopes that the fleet which the conquistador scuttled in 1519 may soon be rediscovered.

The anchors were excavated from under a metre of sediment in the Gulf of Mexico near Villa Rica, the settlement Cortes founded upon landing 500 years ago in what is now the Mexican state of Veracruz.

Archaeologists say the anchors date back to the time of the first conquistadors’ arrival in the Americas. Another anchor found nearby in 2018 contained a species of oak which grows in northern Spain.

“All the tracks are taking us on the right path to finding these ships,” Roberto Junco, head of underwater archaeology at the National Anthropology and History Institute, said.

“The anchors are aligned in a very small area of 300 metres, more or less … so we believe the ships are going to be some 30 metres from the anchors in the direction these anchors are pointing.”

Cortés scuttled his ships in an attempt to prevent a mutiny by some of his men who wanted to return to Cuba, where their unauthorized expedition had originated.

Before sinking the fleet, Cortés is believed to have salvaged materials such as the sails and metal items – which were used to establish the settlement at Villa Rica.

Divers used magnetometers to search the turquoise waters off the coast of Veracruz, eventually finding the anchors – which were uncovered and examined, but covered again with sediment and left on the seabed.

A magnetic survey of the seabed suggested 15 additional sites might contain anchors – raising hopes of possibly finding Cortés’s ships.

Junco said the expedition hoped to find examples of the ships used during the Spanish conquest as few vessels still exist.

“There are few archaeological examples and very little literature from the time, which would allow us to reconstruct these caravels,” he said.

The discovery of the anchors comes as interest surges in Cortés’s rogue exploits around the 500th anniversary of his arrival in Mexico – where he made his way to the seat of Aztec empire – and sacked it two years later. Millions of indigenous peoples perished due to diseases that arrived with the Spanish.

A biographical TV series titled Hernán is currently airing on Mexican television and international streaming services and a miniseries starring Javier Bardem is in production.

But with the anniversary has come controversy: Cortés is perhaps considered Mexico’s pre-eminent historical villain – the product, in part, of official histories offering sympathetic versions of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilizations, and portraying Cortés and his men as marauding and monstrous.

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also pulled Cortés into the country’s current politics, accusing the conquistador of pulling off the first act of fraud in modern Mexico by declaring himself mayor of Villa Rica.

Junco acknowledged the controversy, commenting: “Cortés is an unpopular character – which is unfortunate because it causes a conflict in the Mexican psyche.”

He added: “Mexican history has tended toward the pre-Hispanic side of things and the Spanish side isn’t truly recognized – so for us it’s been gratifying to be addressing this part of Mexican history.”