For the past five years, researchers at East Carolina University have worked to identify, catalog, and preserve artifacts from a shipwreck believed by many to be that of one of the most infamous ships in history, the Queen Anne’s Revenge—the flagship of the pirate Blackbeard.
Chief conservator Sarah Watkins-Kenney stands with a young attendee before artifacts in wet storage at the QAR Conservation Lab at ECU's West Research Campus
Since 2003, the effort to preserve the ship’s remains has taken place at the Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Conservation Laboratory on ECU’s West Research Campus, a joint project between ECU and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. On Saturday, April 26, the QAR Conservation Lab opened its doors to give the public an unfettered look behind the scenes of marine archaeology and historical preservation.
“We’re trying to give everyone a chance to see some of the artifacts that have come up from the shipwreck site,” said Sarah Watkins-Kenney, chief conservator of the QAR Conservation Lab. “It’s an opportunity to show the work that’s involved in the archaeology and conservation of the shipwreck.”
An impressive number of artifacts, including cannons, navigational tools, glass bottles, cannon balls, and ballast stones were on display, and there were numerous things for guests to see and do.
Wall displays provided detailed information about various topics, including the biography of Blackbeard as well as an overview of the conservation process used to preserve the artifacts brought up from the wreck. Illustrations offered ideas as to what the Queen Anne’s Revenge looked like 300 years ago, and maps showed what the wreck site looks like today. Microscopes and magnifying lenses were set up to give guests a better look at some of the smaller artifacts and to show how meticulous the excavation process can be.
Wendy Welsh holds a concretion
inside the lab's X-ray facility.
The appeal of the open day was the incredible access guests had to actual artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and the people working so hard to identify, catalog, and preserve them. Experts, including marine archaeologists and conservators, were at the ready to answer any questions guests had about the QAR project.
“It was nice because they did a great job to explain the methods they use to preserve [the artifacts.] They had many nice displays with pictures and replicas,” said Ajlana Music of Greenville.
Many of the ship’s artifacts are currently on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, North Carolina. But before the artifacts are sent to Beaufort, they are brought to the West Research Campus for cleaning and preservation.
“You see these things in a museum and you assume that they were found in this nice pristine condition, but it’s really neat to see what [the conservators] have do to get it into that condition,” said Matthew Phipps of Greenville, who attended the open day with his wife Beth and their four children.
The conservation process used on the artifacts for the Queen Anne’s Revenge is a long and complicated one. Different methods are employed depending on the material brought up from the site. The majority of artifacts are brought up from the sea floor encased in thick mineral concretions that must be chipped off, piece-by-piece, with a pneumatic scribe, a process that can take months to complete.
Even Blackbeard made an appearance at the QAR Conservation Lab open day
“It’s amazing the amount of work that goes into preserving just one piece,” said Jeffrey Massengill of Greenville. “And it’s amazing how delicate the science is behind it.”
Due to the slow nature of concretion removal, the conservators X-ray concretions to see what, if any, objects lay within. As part of the open day, guests were invited to take a tour of the lab’s new X-ray facilities and view actual X-rays of concretions.
“Last fall we were able to buy an X-ray machine, which is really crucial for our work because a lot of the artifacts come up as big lumps of concretion which could have anything in them. By using X-rays we can see what artifacts are inside the concretion,” said Watkins-Kenney.
Fortunately for the conservators, not all artifacts are encased in concretions. The smallest objects from the ship—bits of musket shot, tacks, nails, coins, and even gold dust are found in the seabed surrounding the wreck. Researchers dredge sand from the sea floor and bring it to the QAR Conservation Lab where researchers use panning techniques to separate the artifacts.
“It’s impressive that they can find such tiny little pieces, the pins and the needles and things like that,” said Phipps.
This year’s QAR Conservation Lab open day was the first since October of 2005. Since then, the research team has had two excavation seasons at the wreck site and brought up a large amount of new material. Watkins-Kenney anticipates another three-month excavation this fall and hopes to host another open day once any new artifacts are ready for pubic view.