Wednesday, September 01, 2004


Divers probe river bottom for evidence of shipwrecks


By LAUREN KING, The Virginian-Pilot ©

ELIZABETH CITY — Beneath the dark, murky waters of the Pasquotank River, Julep Gillman-Bryan’s gloved hand emerged.

After several minutes blindly feeling her way along what is thought to be the submerged wreckage of the “Steamer Annie,” she raised her hand above her head to search for the underside of one of the two boats waiting for her return.

Topside, Richard W. Lawrence and Nathan C. Henry , also of the underwater archaeology department of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, talked with Capt. Barry Cullens of Elizabeth City about the find located in the river behind the Pearl A. Presley Hall of Roanoke Bible College.

“The wreck is pretty much like what you showed us,” Lawrence said to Cullens. “We dropped in where the buoy was and landed right on the deck.”

Though he works full time, he spends his free time exploring the area’s waterways and mapping their floors. He markets the data he collects to fishermen, historians and archaeologists.

Cullens’ success at finding wrecks in the darkness of the region’s rivers was enough to convince Lawrence, Gillman-Bryan and Henry to travel to Elizabeth City and spend the week investigating locations that show up as a series of mysterious spots on Cullens’ sonar maps.

Lawrence said that typically the state underwater archeologists use a magnetometer to search the waters for wreckage and artifacts.

The problem with that technology, he said, is that the magnetometer picks up readings from items beneath the mud and they cannot be found by divers who are feeling their way around a river bottom and are using a small light adequate only for reading gauges.

Cullens’ maps are colorful patterns of light and dark on a screen. But Cullens can see the outlines of a ship, broken piers and sometimes even a diver who is scouring the wreckage.

When the state divers finished exploring the “Steamer Annie” wreckage Tuesday afternoon, Cullens inserted a CD into his laptop. He buried his head inside a makeshift monitor cover made from a sack and found the location of the next site. He clicked on the location and the GPS coordinates popped up.

His boat engine churned up the amber-colored water, and Cullens led the way from Roanoke Bible College, under the Camden Causeway bridge and to a site located between the Elizabeth City Shipyard and the College of the Albemarle’s extension center.

“I’ve been wondering about this one,” Cullens said.

Henry suited up for his dive .

From below the surface he reported his findings: a 57-foot-long flat piece of wood.

“It could be a wreck, but it could also be a big, flat piece of wood,” Lawrence said.

Later, Henry said that he found carriage bolts, which indicate a structure, not a shipwreck. He did find signs of the city’s shipping history, however.

Ballast stones are everywhere, Henry called from underwater.

The team of underwater archeologists plan to spend the rest of the week with Cullens, visiting sites in the Pasquotank and Perquimans rivers.

On Wednesday, Cullens reported that the group had already found several wrecks from the Civil War and the early 1900s and pieces of piers that had been broken up and sunk.

But no matter what the group finds, it is unlikely that any of the wrecks will be pulled to the surface anytime soon.

Lawrence said that most of the state agency’s work is about maintaining the sites rather than recovering them.

He and his colleagues are responsible for compiling an inventory of underwater archaeological sites throughout the state to protect and preserve the historical findings.

See article here.

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