The methods the professors and students employed to identify and date the wreck illustrate how archaeologists answer questions that written history never will. Learning what trees produced the timbers narrowed its origin most likely to England.
The hull was largely held together with wooden fasteners known as trunnels, and the framing of the ship was made of compass timbers—trees with a curve that more easily fit together to support a ship’s hull. A coin stamped 1603 was found nearby. To the ECU researchers, these clues indicate the ship probably was constructed in England before 1650 and was used in early commerce with the Jamestown colony.
If the age of the shipwreck was startling, it was no surprise that East Carolina’s program in maritime studies was equipped to help solve this archaeological riddle. When it began in 1981 it was only the second program of its kind in the nation, a bold course of study for a largely unplumbed discipline. It’s still distinctive: now there are just four offering the degrees. This master’s program has garnered international accolades for the breadth of its research and its global reach. Students and faculty have mapped shipwrecks in the Atlantic and Pacific, investigated sunken vessels in Bermuda, recovered ancient canoes from coastal rivers, and analyzed artifacts from a 17th-century warship in Sweden.
When students complete the program, they are fully trained archaeologists ready to share discoveries with the world and preserve them for the future.
Just add water
As part of the university’s Department of History, maritime studies focuses on seminal events in history like wars, migrations and cultural shifts. But whereas historians focus on written records, maritime studies students examine how these events occurred. Usually they occurred on boats, which for most of history has been humanity’s only way of covering large distances. From the hollowed-out tree trunks employed by Native Americans, to the sophisticated galleons used to bring settlers to the New World, human history has been made on the water. Much of that history now lies hidden beneath it.
That’s why maritime studies students spend so much time there. During twice-yearly field seasons, they head out to the rivers, lakes and ocean beds that hold the shipwrecks they will investigate. “Diving is simply our office sometimes,” says Bradley Rodgers ’85, a professor in the program who specializes in nautical archaeology. “It can be an ugly office—it’s not all Club Med.”
By way of illustration, he says, he once gave honorary recognition to students with the most leeches after a dive in Bertie County’s Cashie River. Exploring the remains of a 19th-century pole boat in the Tar River, Rodgers had an unexpected visitor. Peering through the murky water, “I realized a 4-foot long snake was wriggling past my face.” Sometimes, he adds, “while we’re in the river, the bears are watching us. There’s never a dull moment.”
Before they can dive, students must complete the Scientific Diver Course through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. ECU offers this course through its office of Diving and Underwater Safety and insists on rigorous training with zero tolerance for mistakes. Air tanks and breathing equipment must be in perfect shape. Students learn how to work under water as a team, knowing that on some dives it may be impossible to see your hand in front of your face. “We all depend on each other for our lives,” says Larry Babits, program director. “Everybody has to be made exquisitely aware of how dangerous it can be diving on these wrecks. If it’s a metal ship, the whole thing is dangerous. It has rusted, sharp edges. Glass can rip you right open.”
“At the same time you have to get your job done,” he says, adding, “You can’t put others at risk by something you do.”
Their work often involves sketching a wreck as it lies on the ocean floor, measuring it from stem to stern, or as much of it as remains, and pinpointing the location of interesting features. Next comes thorough examination and usually, excavation. Each area is drawn in detail, and it’s often tedious work that requires an immense deal of concentration. If someone finds a spoon lodged behind a cabinet door, or a clump of rusted iron, known as concretion, it’s marked. If items are retrieved, they must be carefully preserved until they can begin conservation.
“Everything is complicated,” Rodgers says, and that’s especially true for dives in water offering only limited visibility, like coastal rivers or turbid tidal zones. Just to see what they’re touching, they use plastic bags filled with clear water and glow sticks to illuminate features in the murk.