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The mysteries inside Columbus' casket

Spain and the Dominican Republic are still arguing over who has the explorer's real remains.

MADRID — Controversy and Christopher Columbus go hand in hand — but the disputes extend beyond his legacy. Countries are even bickering over his physical remains.

Wednesday marks the 503rd anniversary of the explorer's death and the continuation of a century-old disagreement between Spain and the Dominican Republic over which country is in possession of his real bones. A Spanish team of investigators hopes that this year further scientific analysis will bear out its claims.

Everyone agrees that after Columbus died in the northern Spanish city of Valladolid, his family eventually followed the explorer’s wish and sent his remains to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the now-Dominican Republic for burial. The question is who found his real casket centuries later.

When the Spaniards abandoned the island of Hispaniola to the French in 1795, they exhumed what they thought to be Columbus' remains to keep them safe. Spanish researchers believe the original lead box containing Columbus deteriorated significantly while resting in the humid and earthquake-plagued Dominican Republic. Supporters of the Spanish claim say those remaining lead fragments were collected with the bones of Columbus and surrounding materials and put into a new lead box, gilded in gold, that the Spanish took with them when they left the island.

In 1877, after uncovering their own box of bones, with the name Christopher Columbus inscribed on it, the Dominicans said the Spaniards had recovered the wrong bones. The Spanish box was in Cuba by then, and eventually was returned to Spain and housed in the tomb that bears Columbus’ name in Seville.

Spain's bones remained undisturbed until 2003, when scientists convinced custodians that modern research techniques could resolve some of the mysteries surrounding the explorer.

“You don’t expect to find so much trash," said scientist Rafael Delgado, recalling his first look at the contents of the box thought by most Spaniards to contain the explorer’s remains. "I certainly didn’t. But you begin to understand it when put in historical context.”

Delgado leads a team of specialists in soil genesis at the University of Granada. While DNA experts at the same university, led by Jose Antonio Lorente, concentrated on the bone fragments made available for research following the 2003 exhumation, Delgado’s group identified a shopping list of other materials from inside the same box. The materials included gold and silver threads, coal, seeds, mollusc shells, small rodent bones, insects, quartz, mortar and lead fragments. He believes each has a story to tell.

“We’ve been partially resolving things bit by bit,” he added with caution.

A lead pellet was this team’s first hard evidence that the remains in the box belonged to Christopher Columbus and not his son Diego, as some theories suggested.