They are working hard at an underwater grave of an 18th century shipwreck. It is a delicate operation, requiring patient and methodical movement by a team of divers to extract a precious assembly of historic artifacts. It is colloquially named “The Pile”, a concretion of objects that consists of a large anchor lying over seven cannon, other artifacts, and a natural encrustation that has built up over nearly 300 years. This is the wreckage site of the famous pirate Blackbeard’s flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR), just off the coast near Beaufort, North Carolina.
“The immense amount of iron concentrated in this area has provided a host of nutrients for sea life, which in turn has supplemented the amount of encrustation surrounding the artifacts, essentially turning eight separate iron objects into one giant mass,” reports Kimberly Kenyon, Conservator with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resource’s Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Project. “Excavation of the pile will require hammers and chisels used with the utmost care. It will be tedious and time-consuming, and will hopefully provide an array of objects trapped within the concretion. Additionally, new excavation units will be opened around the pile as well as north of it as work continues toward the bow of the ship.”*
To date, more than 280,000 artifacts have already been recovered since serious exploration began in 1996, including at least 15 cannon, ship timbers, 2 anchors, pewter flatware, medical instruments, gun parts, cannon shot, gold grains, glass wine bottles, and ceramic pieces, to name but a few of the types. And like “The Pile”, the focus of their current efforts, many of these finds were recovered together in groups in the form of concretions, hardened conglomerations of sand, shells, and coral which began to build up around artifacts, especially iron objects, soon after they were deposited on the seabed in 1718. Over 2,500 concretions have been recovered, each one containing a multitude of artifacts ranging from glass beads to rigging elements and cannon balls.
A concretion with grenades and other artifacts, recovered from the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
One of two cannon raised in June 2013 and secured safely aboard ship after recovery. Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
Above: A portion of the hull of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, as it rested still in place on the sea floor. Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
For the QAR Project Director John “Billy Ray” Morris and colleagues, the work of excavating and conserving the finds has not been easy. Underwater archaeology presents a complexity and set of challenges that markedly differ from what an archaeologist might typically encounter on a more conventional dry surface, or “terrestrial” excavation. Weather and water conditions can profoundly affect the safety and feasibility of an underwater excavation, unlike the conditions that would be encountered with a dry surface excavation, and archaeologists must don wetsuits and scuba geer and plunge into watery depths to a place that is nothing like the world at the surface. The methodology and equipment are specially adapted, and even after the artifacts are recovered, often a long process of artifact protection, preparation and conservation must take place before they can be studied, further documented and displayed for public view.
But Morris makes clear that, while the artifacts themselves are very exciting and will provide a tangible image for scientists, historians and the public about a chapter in North America’s past, it is really ultimately about the information they will afford.
“The investigation and interpretation of the QAR site will provide information on a variety of topics focused on early 18th century seafaring,” says Morris. “This includes the slave trade, vessel construction, privateering, vessel adaptation by functional necessity, and pirate practices and tactics from the “Golden Age of Piracy”. Additional venues for study and interpretation will encompass the history of North Carolina during the Proprietary Period (when ownership and management of land was granted to certain Lords on behalf of the King or Queen), and the complex relationship between the pirates, North Carolina, and her neighboring colonies.”
Blackbeard, variously known as Edward Teach or Edward Thatch, was among the most historically prominent pirates of the “Golden Age of Piracy”, a period from the 1650’s to the 1730’s when there was a relative profusion of capturing and plundering of cargo ships and commercial ports by private, independent maritime-based robbers. Blackbeard was a notorious English privateer-turned-pirate who operated in the Caribbean and the eastern coast of the American colonies. His best-known vessel was the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a captured and converted French slave ship.
The archaeologists say this phase of the excavations began in early August and is expected to last about three months.
Reports Kenyon, “we are always most hopeful to find the actual wooden structure of the hull of the ship beneath what we can now see, and with work continuing around the pile, it is very promising that hull remains may have been protected by the cannon lying on top……. Hopefully, we will also have an opportunity to raise two cannon and two large cask hoop concretions, which the un-cooperative June weather prevented us from collecting.”*
More detailed information about the QAR (Queen Anne’s Revenge) Project can be obtained at the project website.
In addition, a free premium article about the project and the discoveries is also available in the September issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine.
Cover Photo, Top Left: Diver works at the underwater wreckage site of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
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