Professor Bradley Rodgers and grad student Katie Cousineau measure and map timbers from an ancient ship’s hull at Corolla.
By Marion Blackburn
hen a winter storm exposed the wooden skeleton of an ancient ship in the surf near Corolla, state officials called ECU maritime studies professors for help identifying the vessel. Their onsite research discovered that it’s likely the oldest ship ever found in North Carolina, dating from the early 1600s.
The methods the professors and students employed to identify and date the wreck illustrate how archaeologists answer questions that written history never will. Learning what trees produced the timbers narrowed its origin most likely to England.
The hull was largely held together with wooden fasteners known as trunnels, and the framing of the ship was made of compass timbers—trees with a curve that more easily fit together to support a ship’s hull. A coin stamped 1603 was found nearby. To the ECU researchers, these clues indicate the ship probably was constructed in England before 1650 and was used in early commerce with the Jamestown colony.
If the age of the shipwreck was startling, it was no surprise that East Carolina’s program in maritime studies was equipped to help solve this archaeological riddle. When it began in 1981 it was only the second program of its kind in the nation, a bold course of study for a largely unplumbed discipline. It’s still distinctive: now there are just four offering the degrees. This master’s program has garnered international accolades for the breadth of its research and its global reach. Students and faculty have mapped shipwrecks in the Atlantic and Pacific, investigated sunken vessels in Bermuda, recovered ancient canoes from coastal rivers, and analyzed artifacts from a 17th-century warship in Sweden.
When students complete the program, they are fully trained archaeologists ready to share discoveries with the world and preserve them for the future.
Just add water
As part of the university’s Department of History, maritime studies focuses on seminal events in history like wars, migrations and cultural shifts. But whereas historians focus on written records, maritime studies students examine how these events occurred. Usually they occurred on boats, which for most of history has been humanity’s only way of covering large distances. From the hollowed-out tree trunks employed by Native Americans, to the sophisticated galleons used to bring settlers to the New World, human history has been made on the water. Much of that history now lies hidden beneath it.
That’s why maritime studies students spend so much time there. During twice-yearly field seasons, they head out to the rivers, lakes and ocean beds that hold the shipwrecks they will investigate. “Diving is simply our office sometimes,” says Bradley Rodgers ’85, a professor in the program who specializes in nautical archaeology. “It can be an ugly office—it’s not all Club Med.”
By way of illustration, he says, he once gave honorary recognition to students with the most leeches after a dive in Bertie County’s Cashie River. Exploring the remains of a 19th-century pole boat in the Tar River, Rodgers had an unexpected visitor. Peering through the murky water, “I realized a 4-foot long snake was wriggling past my face.” Sometimes, he adds, “while we’re in the river, the bears are watching us. There’s never a dull moment.”
Before they can dive, students must complete the Scientific Diver Course through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. ECU offers this course through its office of Diving and Underwater Safety and insists on rigorous training with zero tolerance for mistakes. Air tanks and breathing equipment must be in perfect shape. Students learn how to work under water as a team, knowing that on some dives it may be impossible to see your hand in front of your face. “We all depend on each other for our lives,” says Larry Babits, program director. “Everybody has to be made exquisitely aware of how dangerous it can be diving on these wrecks. If it’s a metal ship, the whole thing is dangerous. It has rusted, sharp edges. Glass can rip you right open.”
“At the same time you have to get your job done,” he says, adding, “You can’t put others at risk by something you do.”
Their work often involves sketching a wreck as it lies on the ocean floor, measuring it from stem to stern, or as much of it as remains, and pinpointing the location of interesting features. Next comes thorough examination and usually, excavation. Each area is drawn in detail, and it’s often tedious work that requires an immense deal of concentration. If someone finds a spoon lodged behind a cabinet door, or a clump of rusted iron, known as concretion, it’s marked. If items are retrieved, they must be carefully preserved until they can begin conservation.
“Everything is complicated,” Rodgers says, and that’s especially true for dives in water offering only limited visibility, like coastal rivers or turbid tidal zones. Just to see what they’re touching, they use plastic bags filled with clear water and glow sticks to illuminate features in the murk.
An ECU student records the fantail of the Ivanhoe, which was built in Scotland in 1868 and sunk near Hawaii under mysterious circumstances in 1915.
Ships as history
Traditional historians work from written documents, but they don’t tell the whole story, says Gerald J. Prokopowicz, chair of the Department of History. “There are populations who didn’t record what they did, either because they felt what they were doing was too ordinary, or they may not have been literate. There are tools, in this case water craft, that speak for them and tell us what previous cultures were like. There’s nothing like having a physical object to use, and you can say, ‘This is the real thing. This is what people sailed in. This is the object itself.’ An object gets your attention the way descriptions often can’t.”
That’s certainly true for ships and their contents. “Until recently, shipping and ships were central to everyone’s life,” says second-year student Stephanie Gandulla. “Ships were like the trucking system of that time.”
North Carolina, and especially its coastal waters and beaches, has played a central role in the history of the New World. There may be as many as 9,000 shipwrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” some dating from the earliest colonial period. These ships include trading and war ships, even pirate ships. The wreck presumed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, piloted by Blackbeard himself, lies off the coast near Fort Macon, and many of its artifacts are undergoing conservation at ECU through a partnership with the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, part of the Department of Cultural Resources.
Faculty and students also examined a wrecked World War II-era British vessel near Beaufort Inlet, one of several ships the British sent over to help monitor U.S. coastal waters threatened by German U-boats. The HMT Bedfordshire went down with 37 crew members in 1942. One field season took them to Elizabeth City’s Ships’ Graveyard, believed to harbor as many as 30 watercraft from a 200-year period.
The program’s reach extends north to the Great Lakes, west to the Hawaiian Islands, east to Sweden and south to Florida, where faculty and students examined the Maple Leaf, a Civil War vessel that sank fully loaded with cargo.
One of the hallmark sites for maritime studies field work is Bermuda, where ECU students have participated in research dives since the program started in 1981. Bermuda is a key site for maritime research; St. George’s Parish, with its large harbor, has been used by ships for 400 years, and as a ships’ graveyard since the late 1800s. Through a long-time partnership with the Bermuda Maritime Museum, students have studied shipwrecks dating from the 1500s, Civil War vessels and modern iron and steel wrecks. In recent years, students undertook surveys of sunken vessels near the Royal Navy Dockyard, as well as of a gunboat and two sailing vessels.
Artifacts and conservation
A critical element of ECU’s program in maritime studies is conservation—the science of making sure objects preserved for decades or centuries by rivers and oceans aren’t destroyed when they come ashore. It’s complicated work, says Susanne Grieve, a conservation instructor, conservator and lab coordinator for the program. “There are many types of materials, and we get composites—iron and wood—that require different treatments. You never know how they will react.”
Some artifacts, such as lead shot, may only need to be rinsed or soaked in water. Other materials need constant vigilance to prevent deterioration. Iron, once underwater for decades or centuries, must be kept wet until it can be submerged in a special tank, where chemicals and electric current will remove the minerals it has absorbed. Iron also attracts other materials to it which cling to form big blocks called concretions. These concretions often hold other artifacts—bits of plates, glass, even shackles. Concretions often are a shipwreck’s true treasure chest, and must be carefully dismantled.
“We preserve these things because they give us so much information,” Grieve says. “Not just about the culture, but about the environment it was in. You preserve the aesthetics, but also the real history.” She says personal items help create a fuller picture of people and the times. “You may be seeing something unique about that person—that wasn’t part of their big story. Just one piece of them.”
ECU’s conservation lab recently began the conservation process on a Native American canoe found in Georgia believed to date from around 1100–1200 AD. Grieve will gradually allow it to dry out, then decide how best to preserve it for museum display. The process could take two years.
Field schools, conservation and a strong academic base make ECU’s program in maritime studies one of the best in the world, and its faculty and students come from as far away as Australia, South Africa and South America. This year’s class has students from Canada and throughout the United States. The program is housed in the Admiral Ernest McNeill Eller House on Ninth Street. Eller, a North Carolina native who died in 1992, was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Many students, like Josh Marano ’09, are pursuing a lifelong dream. “I knew I wanted to be in this program since I was 5 years old,” says Marano, a second-year student originally from Fayetteville. “I became fascinated with the field. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I wrote the director to find out what I needed to do to get in. This is the premier program.”
For others, maritime studies means combining a love of history, research and discovery. Hans Van Tilburg ’95 came to the program from Berkeley, Calif., and participated in several field school dives including one on PBYs—the flying boats used during World War II. Today, he is maritime heritage coordinator and unit diving supervisor for the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Sanctuaries, part of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where his job is researching maritime sites—and sharing his enthusiasm for archaeology and history with visitors.
In 2003, he joined the ranks of discoverers when he pinpointed the wreck of the USS Saginaw. Oddly enough, the Union had a Pacific Squadron during the Civil War, protecting ports from Confederate raiders. In 1870, the Saginaw went down in one of the most hostile places imaginable—the east side of Kure Atoll. Van Tilburg was joined in this exploration by Rodgers, his friend and former instructor, along with then-student Kelly Gleason ’06. Diving on the wreck was treacherous, Van Tilburg says. Lashed by waves, the currents were so violent that he and other divers had to cling to the reef with one hand at all times. Excavation came second to staying alive.
“It’s a high-energy environment,” he says. “You have to hold on.” It took another three years before weather and other logistics allowed the team to document the site. Even with decent weather, taking exact measurements was impossible. The surge was too strong.
For Van Tilburg, a firm understanding of Civil War history from ECU helped make this incredible discovery possible. “The program gave me the tools to be able to jump into the historical and archival resources,” he says. “The unique thing about ECU is that it provided that dual approach—archaeology and maritime history. It also provided the techniques to survey these underwater sites that are literally everywhere around the world.”
Likewise, Gandulla, originally from Montana, is setting out on her own journey of discovery. She spent several days measuring and documenting the Corolla shipwreck, where she and her classmates carefully studied the vessel’s timbers, noting odd details like knots and gnarls in the wood, how the boards curved and how they were fastened. This fall, she’ll travel to Sweden to continue her studies of the Vasa, which also dates from about the same period.
“Every ship has a story to tell—who used it, who built it,” she says. “Our maritime heritage is a good vantage point for looking at the history of the world.”
Underwater archaeology offers plenty of food for the mind, she says. “It appeals to the imagination,” she says. “To have your hands on something 400 years old is pretty exciting.”
After ECU, smooth sailing
he San Diego Maritime Museum was a run-down collection of three tattered sailing vessels on the edge of bankruptcy when Raymond Ashley ’93 was named director. Since taking the helm of the waterfront museum 15 years ago he has expanded its holdings to 10 classic ships, including the famous Star of India, one of the mid-19th century’s best-known iron sailing ships. With more than 1.4 million visitors now coming to the museum each year, Ashley’s staff has grown to 55 and his budget to $5 million. In the process he’s gained a national reputation for finding innovative ways to bring to vivid life the history of sailing the ocean blue.
A native Californian, Ashley caught the sailing bug at 17 when he signed on as a deckhand on a schooner for a three-month journey to the Galapagos Islands. “As far as the eye could see, the islands were swarming with life…with penguins and seals and iguanas and turtles. After that experience, I knew I wanted to spend my life around sailing ships.”
To achieve his dream, Ashley traded coasts to enroll in East Carolina’s master’s in maritime studies program, later completing his thesis work at Duke. “For me, each day is an exciting new opportunity to tell these wonderful sea stories,” Ashley says about running the maritime museum. Now 56, he’s married to a second-grade schoolteacher in San Diego and they have two adult daughters.
“We get 20,000 fourth- and fifth-graders through here each year and when I see their eyes light up as they step onto the deck of the Star of India, I know I’m doing the work I was meant to do. In many ways, my passion for doing that got its start at ECU, where I was fortunate to study under some terrific maritime history professors such as William Still and Carl Swanson. Their feeling for the sea and for the great old vessels that once sailed it was a major factor in triggering my own fascination with the world of maritime history.”
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