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Historical Port of Palos

The Port of Palos was the river port from which the expedition set sail on August 3, 1492, subsequently leading to the discovery of America. Led by Christopher Columbus and the Pinzón brothers aboard the caravels Pinta, Niña, and the ship La Santa María, the former Port of Palos served as the river port for the municipality of Palos de la Frontera in the province of Huelva (Andalusia, Spain). It is one of the locations included in the historical and artistic ensemble of the Colombinos Sites, having played a significant role in the preparations and the journey to search for new trade routes to the Indies. As known, in the 13th century, trade routes between Europe and Asia were blocked due to the Crusades.

It was a natural port located on the banks of an inlet of the Tinto River in the municipality of Palos, now Palos de la Frontera. It was sheltered from winds and away from currents. The inlet had a depth of 6 to 8 meters, allowing the anchoring of ships such as naos and caravels.

The port consisted of the “alota,” the pottery workshop (“alfar”), shipyards, and the Fontanilla spring.

The alota of the port was a large central ship divided into three parts: the tavern with combustion structures and storage areas, the warehouse and inn. Next to them was a large wall, assumed to be where bricks and tiles were stacked. It covered an area of 600 square meters. There was also an additional room in the alota used for commercial transactions, storage, and overnight stays. This was also where the turning room was located, shaping pieces later baked in the ovens. Next to the building was a well supplying the necessary water. Adobe walls were discovered between the alota and the inlet, where the estuary was located, along with various types of pavements, channels, new testares (production test deposits), up to forty in total, and an intact batch of over ninety cones (containers) for sugar marketing.

The pottery workshop (“alfar”) consisted of twelve kilns: one for food, one for lime, two large brick and tile kilns measuring up to 4.4 meters (about three thousand bricks per batch), an intact lime kiln, a small laboratory kiln, and several more. It is estimated that there may be five more yet to be discovered. All kilns had their corresponding testares nearby, where discarded ceramics were accumulated. It covered an area of 800-1000 square meters. The discovered pottery workshop is the most complete and well-preserved in Europe from the 15th and 16th centuries.

The exact location of the shipyard is unknown since the wood that formed it has disappeared.

The Fontanilla is a nearby spring – currently sealed – from which the exploratory ships were supplied with water before departure.

It was a prosperous port in the early 15th century, being one of the most important on the Andalusian coast. It exported tableware, bricks, and tiles to much of Europe. Additionally, Palos mariners had obtained a letter of marque from Queen Isabella for their forays into Guinea. In its alota, the tavern, inn, and warehouse were located, serving as commercial meeting places, customs, and collecting seigniorial tributes.

The Conquest of America was a turning point that caused a collapse in the population of the municipality, around -43%, and a consequent decline in port activity. The establishment of the Casa de la Contratación de Indias in 1503 in Seville marked the beginning of the decline of the port of Palos, which was definitively abandoned by the end of the 16th century. In the early 17th century, it was covered and buried by climatic erosion at the foot of the hill where it is located.

Since then, it has been buried until researchers from the Junta de Andalucía located its position in 1992 during a geotechnical survey in the inlet of the Tinto River, as part of the celebrations for the V Centenary of the Conquest of America. These efforts were outlined in a preliminary study that served as the basis for an archaeological research team, funded by a collaboration agreement between the Palos Town Hall and the University of Huelva, to commence work in June 2014.

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