Blackbeard's Terror

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The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project, overseen by the Office of State Archaeology and its Underwater Archaeology Branch, has been engaged over the past 14 years in intense multidisciplinary historical and archaeological research and scientific analysis, drawing on more than a dozen universities, agencies, and institutions to produce a comprehensive portrait of the foundered vessel. The record of 31CR314 so far reveals a three-masted vessel approximately 90 feet in length and weighing 200 to 300 tons. To date, 25 cannon have been found, the heaviest being six-pounders. The latest dated artifact is a Swedish cannon of 1713, which established the wreck’s current terminus post quem, the date on or after which the ship went down. Other dramatic diagnostic recoveries have included a guinea coin weight bearing Queen Anne’s bust and a fragment of a wineglass stem commemorating the coronation of George I in 1714. Collectively, the datable artifacts stretch from 1690 through the first decade and a half of the 18th century, with a mean date of 1706. All the recovered artifacts predate 1718, the date of the wreck. This diverse assemblage reflects voyages along all the primary North Atlantic trade routes.

Coordinated by Mark Wilde-Ramsing, now head of the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch, teams have gathered nearly every year since 1997 for seasons of scientific analysis, surveying, mapping, testing, photography, excavation, and the recovery of artifacts. In addition to the archaeological and conservation work, scholars from other research institutions and universities have studied the site’s formation, geology, marine biology, currents, and weather patterns.
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On an ideally clear dawn, with only moderate swells and a few feet of aquatic visibility, divers laden with scuba gear and equipment convene at the Fort Macon Coast Guard Station for the brief voyage through the always choppy inlet. Once their boat is secured to a mooring buoy, the divers plunge into the emerald haze, following the cable to the sandy seafloor. A yellow line guides them through the murk until a four-foot-high mass of concreted anchors, cannon, ballast stones, cannonballs, and hull planks suddenly appears, encrusted with varicolored coral, spiny sea urchins, barnacles, and marine plants. A cloud of silvery pinfish floats near several protruding cannon. Curious grouper, sheepshead, sea bass, and puffers check out the divers, while a resident octopus cautiously peers out from under his cannon sanctuary. A diver’s fin disturbs a ray, which explodes from the sand in search of a quieter resting place.

The divers fan out across the site to their assigned tasks. A team carrying metal stakes, coils of line, and heavy hammers swims south to expand the grid of 10-foot squares on the seafloor. Others begin filling sandbags to form a bulwark for the fragile exposed hull. Those mapping and drawing take their tapes and slates north to the massive anchor protruding some seven feet above the sand. The team uses a level and a stadia rod to take elevations on the mound. Photographers, including a videographer, swim around, documenting divers at work and recording artifacts and features in situ.

In one excavation unit outlined by a 10-foot-square metal frame, a skilled dredging crew is delicately removing the overburden of sand from a cannon and several unbroken dark green wine bottles. Their pace slows as they uncover tiny European glass and African ceramic beads, or spot microscopic grains of gold glittering in the sand nearby. On the surface the dredge spoil is run through sluice boxes and successive screens to trap the tiniest objects. The shallow depth of just more than 20 feet enables the divers to work throughout the day in the physically demanding underwater environment, where the main obstacle is a current that can reduce visibility from a few feet to a disorienting zero.

The early years of the dive were spent on testing and surveying, with limited excavation. In 1999 a complete magnetic gradiometer survey determined the limits of the artifact pattern and located metal concretions that could indicate large objects such as cannon. Beginning with the stern in the fall of 2006, total excavation has now extended over half the site, up to the mound.

To date about 300,000 artifacts have been recovered and transferred to the care of chief conservator Sarah Watkins-Kenney and the staff of the QAR Archaeological Conservation Lab at the East Carolina University campus in Greenville. Among the armaments are 25 cannon (most still loaded), ranging from six-pounders to a small signal gun, of which a dozen have been recovered. Besides the outstanding array of early 18th-century artillery, the search has turned up tens of thousands of musket balls and swan shot, cannonballs, parts of muskets and pistols, a decorative sword hilt, and iron hand grenades.

Domestic and personal items include tableware and marked English pewter plates and chargers, fishhooks, lead fishing weights, sewing needles, thimbles, and clay smoking pipes. Among the numerous shards of glass and ceramics are whole onion-shaped wine bottles, made around 1710. Medical items include mortars and pestles, apothecaries’ measuring cups, and a pewter urethral syringe with vestiges of mercury, used to treat venereal disease. A large collection of brass navigation and surveying instruments served the ship’s commanders. Structural elements—deadeyes from the rigging, a bilge-pump screen, hull planks and ribs, a large section of the sternpost, and a flanged lead-pipe “seat of ease” (privy)—have been recovered from the wreck itself.