Pirate wreck timbers salvaged

Divers raise parts of sunken vessel thought to be Blackbeard's

June 27, 2000|By Amy L. Royster | Amy L. Royster,COX NEWS SERVICE

BEAUFORT, N.C. - Timbers from the wreck believed to be Blackbeard's flagship waited 282 years until archaeologists lifted them to the surface recently.

Through 20 feet of bottle-green water, divers raised four deteriorated wood planks from the port side of the shipwreck to waiting research vessels. These pieces of wood may resolve critical mysteries surrounding Blackbeard's pirate career, including the origin of his ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge.

Although fall is prime excavation season, project director Mark Wilde-Ramsing said damage done to the wreck by Hurricane Floyd made recovering the timbers more urgent.

Floyd left the timbers jutting through the ocean floor vulnerable to assault by abrasive, sand-slinging currents and wood-burowing mollusks.

Project scientists covered the timbers with sand in October but were fearful the 2000 hurricane season would uncover them.

"The timbers could sit out another few years, but if another Floyd comes through they would be dislodged and could be lost," Wilde-Ramsing said.

Fragile remains

Fragile compared with artifacts already recovered such as cannons, the timbers lay at the wreck site near a centralized pile of artifacts.

Divers approached the pile hand-over-hand along a carefully staked line until the shape of a large anchor emerged through the silty water. Encrusted in barnicles and resting on top of a pile of ballast rocks, the anchor rose several feet off the sandy floor.

Cannons so covered with growth that their outlining shape was nearly lost were scattered helter-skelter.

Divers worked with their masks close to the bottom trying to free the timbers from the sand.

The project requires a collaboration including underwater archaeologists, geologists, technicians and interns from East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Jim Craig, a professor of geology at Virginia Tech, said the wood timbers may provide important scientific leads that help separate historical fact from pirate lore.

"One of the good things about these timbers, which is even better than the cannons already excavated, is that you can do radio-carbon age dating and tie it into the dendrochronology [tree-ring dating]," he said.

Knowing the age and origin of the timbers could confirm a widely accepted theory that the ship was constructed in France.

Central question

While timbers may provide answers to the details of Blackbeard's travels, lead archaeologists working on the project believe the central question of whether or not the wreck site is in fact the Queen Anne's Revenge has been answered.

"I've been doing this for 20-some years, and we've [Underwater Archaeology Unit] investigated thousands of wrecks. I can count on one hand the number of those wrecks that we have the same kind of evidence as for Queen Anne's Revenge. I'm very convinced that it is what it is," Wilde-Ramsing said.

The expedition to recover the timbers came as the North Carolina General Assembly debated next year's budget, which includes a request by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources for $250,000 in funding for the Queen Anne's Revenge Shipwreck Project.

The funding would turn the project, currently manned with a temporary staff, into a division of the Underwater Archaeology Unit, with five permanent positions. Last year, the Cultural Resources Department gave $100,000 to the project, but it did not receive direct funding from the state.

The shipwreck project used a grant from Greensboro's Julian Price Foundation to salvage the timbers in a two-week project.

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