Dec. 15, 1998 CHAPEL HILL - Using the scientific equivalent of a fine-toothed comb, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill marine scientists are part of a state team of archeologists and university faculty painstakingly studying a sailing ship that sank three centuries ago off the North Carolina coast.
Researchers now strongly believe -- but have not proven -- the vessel was the "Queen Anne's Revenge," seized from French slavers by the pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. That ship went down near Beaufort (N.C.) Inlet in 1718 a few months before Teach's death, and the wreck was discovered in November 1996.
Even atomic bombs exploded in the 1950s and 1960s may offer clues to what happened at the site since the sinking.
Drs. John T. Wells, professor and director of UNC-CH's Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, Christopher Martens, William B. Aycock professor of marine sciences, and Neils Lindquist, associate professor at the institute, joined the effort as a public service and out of "pure curiosity."
"We got involved in this project at the request of the state's underwater archaeology unit to see if techniques we use could be brought to bear on unraveling some of the environmental sciences and physical sciences aspects of the wreck site," Wells said. "We felt that being able to offer some expertise the unit didn't already have was a great opportunity for us and for the state, especially since the wreck is practically right at the institute's back door."
A geologist, Wells has been electronically digitizing old maps and marine charts of the wreck site and the surrounding area produced since the early-1700s to compare with modern charts and conditions. One goal is to create a history of changes over time such as shifting sands and a three-foot rise in sea level.
"We are trying not only to understand what happened to the sea and the shore in the area, but also to see the frequency of change, what hurricanes did, how sand shoals moved, how barrier islands such as Shackleford eroded and how Beaufort Inlet naturally realigned itself over time," he said.
When completed, the work - delayed by Hurricane Bonnie -- will be the most rigorous analysis of maps and charts of the area ever done, Wells said. Preliminary information showed Beaufort Inlet's orientation "flopped around tremendously" over the past three centuries, even more than was suspected.
Also, he is studying the ebb tide delta - a huge "halo" of sand - that sits at the inlet mouth and would block ship traffic if not for frequent dredging. Recent data, which already suggest the wreck site silted in and was less than a meter deep in the early 1800s, may provide clues to why the ship sank. It now sits under 25 feet of water.
Martens radiocarbon-dates wood samples from the hull and anchor stocks brought up in October and other organic material such as horsehair forced into cracks between planks to seal the hull.
"Because its extreme accuracy, we are using the accelerator mass spectrometer facility at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod to date these valuable samples," Martens said. "Since the ship sank in the early 1700s, we expect the oldest wood to be between 300 and 400 years old."
A second effort is to establish whether artifacts such as ballast stones and hull planks have shifted in the last 50 years. Since radioisotopes such as cesium-137 and plutonium-239 and 240 from atmospheric nuclear testing have accumulated in most marine sediments worldwide, Martens should be able to detect any later wreck movement by analyzing sediments cored from beneath the oak hull.
"We won't find the bomb-produced radioisotopes directly under the hull or stones unless they have moved due to storms or other events," he said. "That should tell us something about the impact of storms. It also is possible that burrowing organisms excavated under the hull."
Lindquist is studying corals and various encrusting organisms on the remaining wood and artifacts that have been recovered such as cannons, anchors, bottles, pieces of brass and ballast stones. He hopes to determine which parts of the wreck have been exposed periodically as waves and tides flushed sediments around and over it and when the exposure occurred. Other encrusting organisms of potential use in dating the wreck's history include coralline algae, bryozoans, barnacles and sea whips.
An electromagnetic current meter and wave sensor deployed earlier this year and moored on the sea floor at the site is providing details of storms, waves, tides and current speed and direction that have acted on the wreck, Wells said.
"The N.C. Division of Archives and History and its underwater archaeology unit has given us a great opportunity to help answer some very challenging scientific and intellectual questions," he said. "We are all excited about the multi-faceted team effort and about not only what we have learned so far, but what we will learn over the next year as well."
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