GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ University of Florida archaeologists believe they are nearing discovery of Christopher Columbus' first settlement in the New World, the site in Haiti where the crew sought haven when the Santa Maria sank in 1492.

''We can definitely say that we're in the vicinity,'' said Dr. Kathleen Deagan, an archaeologist at the Florida State Museum in Gainesville, who is leading a search in Haiti for the third summer.''Only time will tell just what we'll turn up.''

When members of the Santa Maria's crew swam ashore, they were greeted by Guacanacaric, a peaceful Arawak Indian chief. The crew built a fortress with timbers salvaged from the Santa Maria and named it La Navidad, the Spanish word for Christmas.

Columbus left 39 men at La Navidad. When he returned from Spain a year later to fetch them, the fortress had been burned and the men killed.

For nearly 500 years, the site was forgotten, Ms. Deagan said.

But now she and five University of Florida students are at the site of an Arawak Indian village on Haiti's northern coast, seeking remains of the settlement.

''The mapping activities of this summer will allow us to really narrow down our search,'' she said. ''This fall, we'll analyze all the material we've collected, and we'll get a good idea of exactly where we are.''

So far, the team has found ''pottery and animal bones and other evidence of the day-to-day life'' at the settlement, said UF archaeologist Michael Gannon.

He said the archaeologists are using three techniques to map the village. They are combing the ground for clues, using an electromagnetic device to find underground evidence of human interference and drilling holes so the subsurface can be mapped, Gannon said.

''When all this is fed into the computer, Dr. Deagan will have a map of the area and she'll know what steps to take in continuing the excavation,'' he said.

The excavation is sponsored by the university's Institute for Early Contact Period Studies, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.