The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pirate Ships and Artifacts

North Carolina's Office of State Archaeology is currently performing underwater excavations to recover material from a ship thought to be the Queen Anne's revenge, the ship commanded by Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the Pirate. The wreck was originally found in 1996, but excavations are being carried out currently. If the archaeologists have the identity of the ship correct, and I have no access to the materials that they have used to identify it so I can not offer an informed opinion on the matter, then it was wrecked in 1718, and has been submerged for nearly 300 years.

From a 2008 article on the on-going excavations:

At Topsail (now called Beaufort) Inlet, Queen Anne's Revenge and a captured sloop, Adventure, ran aground on a submerged sandbar. Some said Blackbeard grounded the ships to clean their hulls, while others, including pirates under his command, suspected he wanted to split the crew and make off in a sloop with most of their plunder. Blackbeard then went into semi-retirement, until Royal Navy soldiers sent by Governor Spotswood of Virginia caught up with him off Okracoke Island in November 1718. Blackbeard was killed in the battle, but he went down in style; he fought on as blood spurted from a wound to his neck, and it took five pistol shots and 20 sword cuts to stop him. Queen Anne's Revenge settled into the sandbar by Beaufort Inlet, buffeted by currents and scoured by sands.

The article notes that the excavations were expected to be done in 2010, but here we are in mid-2011, and a news story over the weekend reported that the archaeologists are still working to recover the anchor. A number of factors have led to the delays in completion, one of the big ones being weather delays.

Archaeology can be difficult at the best of times, but underwater archaeology provides its own special problems. There's the obvious issue of working in an environment where one must have specialized equipment in order to not, ya' know, drown. And then there's the problem of cleaning the artifacts, as described in a Smithsonian Magazine article:

The heavily corroded cannons—some eight feet long and meant to spit six-pound cannonballs—were soaking in various chemical baths to restore them, a process that takes roughly five years. Some cannons that hadn’t undergone chemical treatment were barely recognizable. When a metal artifact corrodes underwater, sand, seashells and other objects adhere to its sides—which then provide attachment points for marine life, such as barnacles. These outer layers, which grow thicker over time, are known as “concretions.” Before breaking them apart, lab workers try to identify what lies beneath with X-rays, but some objects are undetectable. If technicians aren’t careful while cleaning the concretions with air scribes—a type of mini-jackhammer—valuable pieces can be destroyed, especially small ones.

“Once you touch a glass bead, it shatters, and you’re done,” Welsh says.

“Same thing happens with emeralds,” Daniel says.

What interested me about this story is two things - one is the sorts of artifacts being recovered and what that tells us about the life of these sailors, and the other is what the way in which the story was reported over the weekend tells us about a difference in how the public views archaeology and how archaeologists view archaeology.

The artifacts include a wide variety of basic equipment for sailors, medical supplies (my favorite of which is a urethral syringe - used for injecting materials into the urethra - with traces of mercury indicating that it was used in a primitive attempt to treat syphilis), and trade goods (such as glass beads from Africa). These types of artifacts are interesting because they shed some light onto the lives of pirates, a group that, due to it's illegal nature, didn't leave behind the same sort of written record that the more legitimate navies of the time left, and who we consequently know substantially less about.

Again, from the Smithsonian article:

a huge pile of cannons and anchors still on the seafloor. They hope the mound is big enough to contain preserved material for micro-organic analysis. Bits of food, sediment or insect parts could tie the ship to the Caribbean or Africa. Or perhaps they’ll just discover “some hooks and wooden legs,” jokes Mark Wilde-Ramsing, a state archaeologist working on the project. “Parrot bones, maybe.”

The way that the recovery of the anchors and cannons was reported on the radio was as if it were the recovery of the anchors and cannons themselves were the prize. And in the eyes of much of the general public, the recovery of such large items as anchors and cannons would seem more important than the recovery of "Bits of food, sediment or insect parts". This is understandable, as most of us have a tendency to see physical objects from the past, especially those which are clearly identifiable and the purpose of which we can easily understand, as being ties to the people and events from history. Even when little information can be gained from them, they seem important because of the way in which people tend to think about history. This is understandable, and perfectly human.

Archaeologists, however, tend to be data junkies. We want information. We can appreciate just how cool it is to see the anchor from Blackbeard's ship, and we're just as susceptible to wanting to see and touch such objects as anyone else, but we're going to obsess over the little bits of stuff, the bones, broken pottery, shards of metal, and other materials that comprise the detritus of the site. Those objects, while much less beautiful, and not as easily comprehensible, are what tend to hold the most information and therefore are of the most value to us.

Regardless, this is a pretty cool site.

No comments: