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Work continues on reputed Blackbeard shipwreck

By Jeannine Manning Hutson and Karen Shugart

Conservators will soon again descend upon the site of a shipwreck believed to be the resting site of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a flagship of the infamous pirate Blackbeard.

Last year, site archeologists recovered an anchor from the 300-year-old shipwreck. This year’s expedition, which begins Sept. 20 and runs for about six weeks, is likely to yield thousands of pieces that will be brought back to a lab at ECU and studied in the years to come.

The Queen Anne’s Revenge, sunk in the waters of Beaufort Inlet, has been the source of much study since its discovery in 1996. Most associated with Blackbeard, it originally was a French slave ship, called La Concorde, that measured 90- to 100-feet long, with three masts and a crew of 150 to 200 people. Blackbeard captured La Concorde in 1717 and renamed it before the ship ran aground in 1718 near what is today Ft. Macon State Park.

A year after its discovery, work began to bring the artifacts to surface, and authorities hope to have all the wreck’s materials off the seabed by fall 2013, said Dr. Mark Wilde-Ramsing, director of the QAR project.

“We’ve seen some really nice tools, some really nice artifacts — a lot of it we don’t know about until we bring it up,” Wilde-Ramsing said. “We call it peering into the Pirates trove.”

Archeologists and conservators had known about the anchor well before recovering it last year. The careful process of bringing it to the surface began after authorities determined another storm season might dislodge the anchor from its site. (The shipwreck has endured 16 named hurricanes, including Earl, since its discovery within three miles of the coast.)

The anchor was brought up from the Inlet in October 2009 and transported to ECU for cleaning and preservation at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab at the West Research Campus. At the lab, which is a partnership between the university and the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, it was photographed extensively, according to Wendy Welsh, assistant conservator.

This year, a lot of “little things,” are expected to be recovered, Wilde-Ramsing said. Conservators expect to bring up at least 600 concretions — solid masses of mineral deposits and other materials, on average about a foot in diameter — for scrutiny. The masses can contain artifacts as small as glass beads or as large as cannons.

“About 100 individual artifacts are, on average, associated with each one,” Wilde-Ramsing said.

Once recovered, the work has only just begun. Preserving the artifacts can take years from staff and ECU graduate students from the anthropology, chemistry and maritime studies departments. Concretions may be X-rayed. A cannon must undergo an electrolysis process that has to draw the salts out over two or three years. The process of stabilizing recovered items relies on chemistry as well as archeology and anthropology, Wilde-Ramsing said.

“The problem with these artifacts, particularly wood, is that they’re waterlogged … If you just clean them off, put them on the shelf and slowly dry them, they will completely rot. The iron, on the other hand, is full of salt, will eventually crumble if not treated,” he said.

Then, there’s the detective work, as conservators ask questions: Why was this item next to this one, and what does that tell you about what people were doing on board the ship?

Wilde-Ramsing said some of an expedition’s haul is often displayed for a brief show-and-tell session before undergoing further study. Last year, the 4-foot-by-6-inch anchor, encrusted with three centuries of sea material, was displayed briefly that month at the N.C. Maritime Museum. The QAR lab also loaned about 80 artifacts to the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh for an exhibit, “Knights of the Black Flag,” that ended in January.

Eventually, the anchor and all of the artifacts will be part of the collection at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Conservators hope to have a major exhibition the museum in 2018 — the 300th anniversary of the sinking.

For now, the work continues. “It really is just like a crackerjack box,” Wilde-Ramsing said. “You never know what the prizes are going to be.”
 
To find out more about the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck project visit www.qaronline.org.

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This story appeared originally in the Sept. 24, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at http://www.ecu.edu/cs-admin/news/poe/2010/910/September-2010-Archives.cfm.