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The News & Observer:
Pirate ship ID is premature, scholars say


By JERRY ALLEGOOD, Staff Writer

(April 4, 2005) Three archaeologists are mounting the first major challenge to the state's claim that an undersea wreck near Beaufort Inlet is probably the flagship of the famous pirate Blackbeard.

The critics -- two East Carolina University professors and the state of Michigan's underwater archaeologist -- say there is no conclusive evidence to justify identifying the wreck as the Queen Anne's Revenge. They contend that pressure to capitalize on the Blackbeard connection has caused alternative theories for the wreck's identity to be overlooked.

"It's an exciting shipwreck and an important shipwreck," said Wayne R. Lusardi, the Michigan researcher who previously worked on the Blackbeard project. "It just may not be the one everyone hopes it is."

Lusardi and ECU faculty members Bradley Rodgers and Nathan Richards attacked state claims in an article in the April edition of The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Both sides said the article in the British publication, which has about 2,000 subscribers worldwide and is the pre-eminent journal in its field, was the first to dispute the identity of the wreck.

The article is likely to be a lively topic at a conference at ECU on Thursday and Friday called "Examining the Shipwreck Believed to be Queen Anne's Revenge: Science, Mystery, and the Pirate Era in North Carolina." Lusardi, Rodgers and Richards are not scheduled to attend, but other archaeologists, historians and scientists will be reporting their own research.

Rodgers said Friday that the writers decided not to attend the conference because it will include private divers and those who salvage wrecks. He said the critics did not want to give the impression by participating that they supported "treasure hunters."

In their article, the men said state officials and researchers have studied the Beaufort wreck with preconceived notions of its identity. Such biased thinking discounts alternative theories about the wreck, they said.

"The closer you look, the less certain the identification seems to be," they wrote.

They said the bias appeared to have affected scientists and researchers who did related work on the project.

"If the site is called the Queen Anne's Revenge long enough," they wrote, "people (even supposedly objective researchers) no longer question the original identification."

Mark Wilde-Ramsing, manager of the state's Queen Anne's Revenge project, and Richard W. Lawrence, director of the state's underwater archaeology branch, said circumstantial evidence that the ship is Blackbeard's continues to accumulate. They said the authors of the new article based some conclusions on early research and misinterpreted some reports.

"We have this working hypothesis that this is the Queen Anne's Revenge," Lawrence said, "and so far, the data supports that identification."

He acknowledged that the evidence is not conclusive. "We have not found a smoking blunderbuss," he said.

Article dismissed

Thousands of artifacts have been retrieved since a private company, Intersal Inc., found the wreck just off Atlantic Beach in 1996. Phillip Masters,who runs Intersal, scoffed at the article, saying the authors had done no in-depth research. "The article is rubbish," he said.

He said the state should be even more direct about the identity of the wreck and drop the phrase "believed to be" the Queen Anne's Revenge when referring to it.

The pirate, whose real name was widely believed to be Edward Teach or Thatch, was said to have participated in the capture of more than 50 vessels. He cultivated a fearsome image that spurred captains to give up without a fight.

In 1717, Blackbeard captured the ship, originally a French slaver called the Concorde, and renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge. Historical accounts say the pirate intentionally sank the ship near Beaufort in June 1718 to break up his company of 300 to 400 men.

After the loss of the Queen Anne's Revenge he made his way to Bath, where he received a pardon from the North Carolina governor. After he returned to piracy, he was tracked down at Ocracoke Inlet by volunteers from the Royal Navy and killed in a battle on Nov. 22, 1718.

In 1997, state officials' announcement of Intersal's discovery created a sensation. Journalists and researchers clamored for information, and museums around the world requested artifacts they could display. Bath, Ocracoke, and Beaufort claimed the right to relics.

Rodgers and Richards said in an interview that the Beaufort Inlet shipwreck is certainly significant because it is one of the oldest wrecks found in North Carolina and it can shed light on a poorly understood period of American history.

But they said too much taxpayers' money has been spent in a long-shot bid to prove the identity of the ship. About $967,000 has been spent on the Beaufort site, and researchers are seeking about $3.7 million more.

This year, state researchers on the shipwreck project will receive $145,000 from the Golden LEAF Foundation, the organization set up to allocate economic development money obtained through the state's settlement with cigarette manufacturers. The researchers will also receive $100,000 from the General Assembly.

What the relics tell

So far, more than 15,000 relics have been recovered from the wreck. The state has restored and displayed dozens, including pewter dinner plates, cannonballs and a bronze bell. At least 23 cannons have been found at the wreck site. Seventeen remain on the ocean floor because the state does not have the money to recover them or a place for the extensive treatment needed to prevent corrosion. Five have been treated and another is being treated.

Lawrence, the state archaeologist, said specialists have concluded that much of the material dates to the early 18th century, fitting the general period when Blackbeard roamed the coast.

The size of the wreck, estimated at 85 to 100 feet, roughly matches the 103-foot length of the pirate ship.

Premises questioned

Rodgers, Richards and Lusardi challenged the assumption that the many guns indicated a heavily armed pirate ship. All ships during the period were similarly armed, they said, and the number and and caliber of the guns suggest that the wreck was probably a merchant ship.

They said only 14 guns were probably mounted on the Beaufort shipwreck, while the others were too small to damage a ship or were stowed in the hold as ballast. The number of those mounted is what would be expected on an average merchant vessel during peacetime in the first half of the 18th century, they said.

Varying historical accounts say the Queen Anne's Revenge carried 22, 36 and up to 40 guns.

In addition, the archaeologists said, one cannon bears a rough mark they interpreted as 1730 or possibly 1737. If that is the date of the cannon's manufacture, they said, it would eliminate the wreck as the Queen Anne's Revenge.

Lawrence said gun experts concluded the mark was not made by a manufacturer. He said it appears to have been roughly chiseled into the barrel, possibly by someone selling the gun.

The article also disputes the significance of gold flakes found in the wreckage. Rodgers, Richards and Lusardi said scientists who examined the material at the state's request determined that the flakes originated in Western Europe, possibly in the Mediterranean.

If so, they said, it would probably not be the West African gold dust that Blackbeard reportedly stole from the officer and crew of the Concorde. Lusardi, who worked on the Beaufort shipwreck about four years, discovered the traces of gold at the site.

Critics faulted

Lawrence said the critics misconstrued the report. He said the experts the state consulted had concluded that lead from ship's rigging and ballast, not the gold, probably originated in Western Europe -- as would be expected of a ship built in Europe. He said the experts determined that the gold was generic and they made no findings about origin.

The ship and relics are still highly prized. Carol Lohr, executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority in Carteret County, said her organization plays up the pirate angle when promoting the region. And scores of visitors ask about the shipwreck site and the artifacts managed by the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

"The ship itself is from the 1700s," she said. "If we had to take away the Blackbeard mystique, we might lose some of the interest. But it would still bring a lot of folks."

Staff writer Jerry Allegood can be reached in Greenville at (252) 752-8411 or jerrya@newsobserver.com.