The ‘early 18th century’ wreck recently discovered off the coast of North Carolina may not be what it appears to be. The wreck was discovered by Duke University biology researchers using Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute equipment to search for a lost instrument buoy. An early press release labeled it as early 18th century or possible Revolutionary period (a pretty wide span of time in any event). Examination of photographs from the site, beneath 6,000 feet of water on the continental shelf, tell an even more confusing story.
Bruce Terrell, chief archaeologist of NOAA’s Marine Heritage Program, told the Archaeology Hour yesterday: “We can clearly see what appears to be an octant in one photograph. Yet in other photographs we can see bottles that appear to have a form normally dated to the early decades of the 19th century. Obviously we have issues when it comes to dating the wreck.”
Terrell notes other questions raised by the evidence in the photographs. “There is very little rigging hardware to be seen. The hull structure of the vessel is gone completely but from the size of the ballast pile and the rigging hardware we can see it appears to be a very small ship; maybe 40 to 60 feet long.” This might indicate a Bermuda sloop or a small coasting schooner. Coasting vessels typically hugged the coastline and operated in shallow waters and riverine areas – this site is 180 miles out on the Blake Plateau.
The current information draws immediate comparisons with the wreck of another small coasting vessel found by sport divers in the Black River, South Carolina in 1971. This reporter spent a month working on the vessel in the 1980s and later on its reconstruction at the Georgetown Rice Museum where it is now on display. This vessel also appeared to be a small coasting schooner dated to the mid 18th century – and it also contained an octant.
Sir Isaac Newton in vented the quadrant in the 1690s, the octant appeared in the 1730s. Philadelphia inventor Thomas Godfrey and English mathematician John Hadley invented it simultaneously. The instrument enabled navigators to take sightings of both the sun and stars. It’s presence on the North Carolina wreck points to a mid-18th century or possibly earlier date for the wreck. The dating contradiction arises from bottles that appear in another photograph of the site. The shapes of the bottles appear to be typical of the very late 18th or early 19th century. “It is highly improbable that two wrecks are mixed here, “said Terrell. “This is not very likely in 6,000 feet of water.”
Clearly, more information is needed from the site. It is likely that more research will be done as the site adds important new information to North Carolina’s maritime history. “I am not sure what will happen next, “ says Terrell. “The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the Federal Agency responsible for the continental shelf and the decision on next steps will come from them. Hopefully an archaeologist will be appointed and a survey of the site will be completed.”
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