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Ewen Edits, Writes on Archaeology of Piracy

By Nancy McGillicuddy

When underwater archaeologists search for pirate ships, buried treasure and silk-eye patches don’t often make their artifact list.

That’s because, despite what film or literature might imply, pirate ships in their heyday and in their present underwater graves look like every other ship, according to East Carolina University anthropology professor Charles Ewen, co-editor of a new book on the archaeology of piracy.

“You’re not going to find barrels of hooks or eye patches,” he said. “That’s where archaeology can help.”

Unlike other shipwrecks, scholarly archaeologists like Ewen, usually won’t go near pirate vessels. Working with pirate ships can be a coup de grace for many careers, because excavation often entails collaborating with the bane of the archaeologist: the treasure hunter.

And it also means working on a topic so romantically stretched, it has inspired cultural pop icon references ranging from “Peter Pan” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean” to the snarling mascot of East Carolina University. Ewen said these references to pirates simultaneously soften the image of pirate-provoked terror and the scholarly nature of underwater archaeology.

“Having it be popular taints it a bit,” Ewen admitted in reference to the study of pirate shipwrecks. “But I like making this popular. The general public deserves to see this.”

In February, the public had that chance with a book Ewen co-edited with his best friend and colleague, Russell Skowronek. The book, “X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy” (University Press of Florida, 2006) attempts to bridge academia with the public’s pirate curiosity. Ewen said the book is scholarly, but accessible.

“X Marks the Spot” describes all nine known pirate shipwrecks and the history surrounding their demise, including the Queen Anne’s Revenge off North Carolina’s Beaufort Inlet and the Whydah, which was discovered off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the early 1980s. Contributors also address the differences between pirates, buccaneers and privateers and the ethical implications faced by scientists working with treasure-hunting divers or adventure divers (non-academic divers who pillage shipwreck sites). One of the many problems scientists have with working in this type of setting is that sites are not excavated using the meticulous methods of the academic. Instead, much of the site is destroyed very quickly in order to expose heavier objects. Light objects are washed away, leaving a wrecking ball of an archaeological site.

“Should you work with them? As long as you can get permits to loot these ships then it’s legal,” Ewen said. “The problem with collaboration is that you do send a message that what they are doing is okay.”

The book includes several authors with East Carolina University ties, including Wayne Lusardi, an ECU alumnus who wrote the chapter “The Beaufort Inlet Shipwreck Artifact Assemblage” and Lawrence Babits, an ECU maritime history professor who co-authored a chapter on pirate imagery with ECU graduate students Joshua Howard and Matthew Brenckle.

8/2/10
This page originally appeared in the March 10, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/archives.cfm.