Summer Field School 2002
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
The ECU Program in Maritime Studies conducted its annual summer field school in the warm, clear waters of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands June 2- 22, 2002. Under the guidance of Dr. Brad Rodgers and Dr. Annalies Corbin, students performed the first systematic underwater surveys of Leinster Bay, Water Creek, and the Santa Monica, an English warship that sank in 1782. The field crew worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. National Park Service’s park archaeologist Ken Wild. St. John Park Superintendent John King and Dr. Tim Runyan recently signed a five-year Memorandum of Agreement for cooperative work. Runyan worked with students and the Park Service along with faculty members Dr. Larry Babits and Frank Cantelas. David Brewer, archaeologist for the U.S. Virgin Islands based at St. Thomas, provided valuable support.
Inhabited since pre-Columbian times, St. John is rich in maritime history. Danish colonists first settled the island in the late 1600’s. In colonial times, seventy percent of the plantations grew sugar cane in an effort to quench the Old-World’s sweet tooth. Plantations demanded a massive labor supply from Africa and St. John became a critical stopover on the Middle Passage of the triangular trade. Captains received sugar, molasses, and rum in exchange for their human cargo. In response to their horrible treatment, slaves organized a major revolt in 1733 that was eventually put down by French soldiers. The Virgin Islands were sold by Denmark in 1917 to the United States. The Rockefeller family acquired a portion of St. John and in 1956 donated a sig- nificant portion of their property to the U.S. gov- ernment. The National Park Service now monitors and protects two-thirds of St. John, including much of the surrounding coral reef.
The first week of fieldwork focused on the water and shores surrounding Leinster Bay on the north coast of the St. John. Leinster Bay is the site of Annaberg Plantation, a sugar plantation that thrived during the eighteenth and nineteenth century and is now a popular tourist attraction. Initial objectives included relocating a previously discovered ballast pile, mapping and photographing the wreck and entire bay, and locating other submerged cultural resources in the area. Students divided into three field crews. Included with the ECU students were Will Spoon of Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC, and Brooke Lowry of St. Mary’s College, San Francisco, CA. Crew chiefs were Alena Derby, Kelly Gleason and Russ Lewis.
Crew 1 conducted a shoreline survey of the bay. By using an E.D.M. and transit, the maritime students fixed a shore datum and recorded measurements later used for constructing the site map. Crew 2 located the ballast pile in eight to ten feet of water a few hundred yards offshore. The third crew performed a line search to locate objects relating to the wreck site. Strong currents, sea urchins, and fire coral slightly hindered the search. A baseline was put in place. Students then mapped the ballast pile.
National Park Service archaeologist Ken Wild requested an extensive remote sensing survey of Leinster Bay in an attempt to discover magnetic anomalies and locate distinctive features of the seabed. ECU staff archaeologist Frank Cantelas captained the Beluga, a Park Service boat equipped with ECU’s proton procession magnetometer and 600 kHz side-scan sonar. The Beluga pulled the magnetometer on an eighty-foot cable while Hypac Max marine survey software recorded the raw data from the remote sensing equipment. Cantelas guided the boat over hundreds of track lines using a geo-rectified satellite photo of St. John in conjunction with a grid overlay on a laptop computer. The data are currently being evaluated.
While remote sensing continued, Dr. Rodgers excavated two test trenches on the ballast pile. Trench I failed to expose any part of the ship or artifacts. Trench II exposed a significant portion of the hull and a few artifacts, including a highly concreted brown glass bottle bottom, red bricks, one piece of lead caulking used for repairing the vessel, and numerous flint cobbles. The glass bottle bottom and flint cobbles were shipped to ECU for further conservation and the remaining artifacts were photographed digitally and returned to the site. The second test trench revealed important diagnostic features about the vessel. Futtocks, floor, and outer hull planking were visible, though no ceiling planking was found. The presence of sacrificial planking, probably pine, and sheathing suggest the vessel worked primarily in warm waters where marine wood- borers thrive. Sheathing and sacrificial planking were used to prevent worms from reaching the critical hull structures. The hull, however, showed extensive dam- age from teredo worms. The presence of the worms, combined with the lack of ballast trail, indicates the vessel likely sank while moored or anchored in the bay.
Only twenty-five percent of the hull remains. The vessel has ten-inch sided and eight-inch molded timbers. The ship was between 100 and 200 feet in length and was approximately 200 to 250 tons burden. The field crew estimates it drew six to eight feet of water and was likely a 3-masted vessel rigged in a coasting con- figuration. The vessel is double-framed; two pieces of wood are joined with butt scarphs, a technique popular from the 1790’s to 1820’s. This fact, combined with the size and placement of parts and small number of iron nails, suggests a construction date from the late eighteenth century to early nineteenth century (Federal Period), during the heyday of Annaberg Plantation.
While students conducted the initial investigations at Leinster Bay, Dr. Larry Babits and doctoral student Melissa Hendrickson researched archival records concerning plantations and fortifications on St. John. After discovering the remains of what appeared to be an old wharf a few hundred yards from the wreck site, they examined numerous maps of Annaberg Plantation hoping to confirm their suspicions. Dr. Babits conducted additional research in the Danish archives in Copenhagen the following fall, but turned up no written evidence of the wharf. The structure consists of large two- and three-foot carved stones extending forty-five feet from the shore, a mere twenty feet from the remains of an old Danish road. The wharf is approximately ten feet wide and many stones have been washed out. The majority of the cobbles are completely submerged, even at low tide. The seabed on the east side of the wharf consists of fine sand and reaches a depth of four to five feet, ideal for loading and unloading of cargo and passengers. Although time was limited, maritime students recorded the measurements of the structure and took compass bearings with the intent of further research. The wharf, combined with the ruins of the sugar plantation, is a reminder of the importance of colonial goods and their role in shaping trade in the Caribbean.
The second week of field school took place in Water Creek, off Hurricane Hole, on the eastern end of St. John. The shore surrounding the creek slopes down at a sixty-degree angle and the water depth drops quickly to thirty feet. This distinctive feature made Water Creek a popular location for careening and refitting ships. Objectives for the week included locating the “Creamware Wreck,” a reported shipwreck in the creek, and mapping the bay with the location of the shipwreck. Secondary objectives concerned documenting and dating a cannon buried upright on the rocky shoreline and locating the ruins of a plantation great house and well used to provision ships.
Maritime students conducted an initial survey of Water Creek. Five students staged at ten-foot intervals swept the waters around the supposed wreck site searching for significant diagnostic items. Ken Wild followed the divers with a metal detector. Fine layers of sand and silt can easily cover a vessel, making the metal detector a vital tool for locating a wreck in such an environment.
In addition to the metal detector, a water induction dredge allowed students to remove sand, silt, and other debris. The material was pumped to the surface where it was analyzed in detail. The use of the dredge reduced underwater visibility in the area of study from forty feet to five feet in a matter of minutes. The search for the “Creamware Wreck” proved futile by the end of the week, but students received valuable training in the proper use and handling of a water induction dredge.
Due to the fact that Water Creek was a popular careening spot for vessels, the large iron cannon buried upright on the shore was not unusual. Crews most likely moored their vessels to the cannon while they made repairs. Two maritime students performed a partial excavation of the cannon in order to determine its approximate age and other identifying features. Two feet of the barrel stood above the rocks and broken coral on the beach. The bore was filled with dirt and debris and the entire cannon was highly corroded and rusted. The cannon was also home to three small scorpions, common residents on St. John. After the excavation of a few feet of soil, the students recorded the basic features of the cannon. The muzzle is two feet in circumference and the bore is three inches in diameter. A double-reinforce is located three feet, four and one-half inches from the muzzle and all other reinforces have long since been corroded. The true diagnostic features of the cannon, the trunnions, are located three feet eight inches from the muzzle and are positioned on the edge of the cannon as opposed to the center. All measurements are approximate due to the extreme nature of corrosion on the weapon. Taking these features into consideration, the cannon most likely dates to the late 1600s.
Historian and St. Thomas resident David Knight addressed the cannon in a presentation to the maritime students. In 1718, the Danish established a fortification in the vicinity of Water Creek. A fort may have existed earlier, but no solid evidence exists. The fort was purposely destroyed in 1733 after the slave revolt and the troops moved west to Cruz Bay. Knight believes the cannon came from the 1718 fort and was buried after the destruction of the fort. He concurs with the estimated late seventeenth century date of founding for the cannon. It was common practice to move cannon from fort to fort or ship to ship.
A small field crew received permission from the National Park Service to locate and document the remains of a plantation great house and well on the slopes surrounding Water Creek. The heat, rocky terrain, and dense growths of mangroves, cacti, and brambles made work more difficult than expected. Although maritime students failed to locate the great house, they did discover the well used to provision vessels. The well is composed of large stones and cobbles stacked upon one another, and the stones above ground are joined with crude cement. The well is nineteen feet, six inches deep and twelve feet in diameter. The stones extend two feet, six inches above ground level. The well was obviously used within the past century due to the presence of a trough extending twenty-three feet from the side. Husbandry was popular on the island and goats and mules continue to populate the adjacent hills. The students photographed, measured, and diagramed the well. The exact location of the watering hole was marked with a hand-held G.P.S. unit. The site is littered with red bricks, pot handles, bowl rims, and brown glass and may relate to the ruins of the great house.
The final week of field school focused on Hanson Bay, the wreck site of the Santa Monica. The field crew relocated the ill-fated vessel, mapped the site, and fixed shore datum with an E.D.M. and transit. The Santa Monica rests in 30- 50 feet of water and approximately one-third of the hull is visible. All frames and planks have collapsed inward and heavy metal sheathing and massive through pins are exposed. The exposed wood has been mineralized. The keelson and mast saddle are the most prominent features of the site. The massive dimensions of the timbers, twelve inches by ten inches, and the solid framing suggest the vessel was a formidable warship. The bow of the vessel points directly at the shore. The overall wrecking process suggests a buoyant hull wreck type.
The Santa Monica was initially a 25-gun Spanish frigate. The British captured the vessel off Gibraltar in 1779 and increased the number of guns to 36 eighteen-pounder guns. The Santa Monica was a fifth-rate vessel with a standard crew of 250 seamen but carried up to 450 seamen in times of war. The British Admiralty sent the vessel to the Caribbean to stop American ships from attacking Tortola in 1782. After provisioning for a major voyage, the vessel hit bottom four times in a storm and immediately began sinking. Captain John Lindsey attempted to run the ship aground. Much of the cargo was salvaged.
Salvors relocated the wreck in 1970 and further looted the site. The Santa Monica is historically significant and demands further study. The vessel fought in the European wars and the American Revolutionary War and will provide an excellent site for future fieldwork.
The ECU Program in Maritime Studies owes special thanks to National Park Service superintendent John King, archaeologist Ken Wild, and diving officer Thomas Kelly for their invaluable support. Additional thanks goes out to Friends of the Park director Joe Kessler, historian David Knight, ECU diving safety officer Gary Byrd and Maggie Day and her accommodating staff at the eco-friendly Maho Bay Camps.