Thursday, December 09, 2004


Dredging up history in the Delaware Bay


Delaware online
By Molly Murray
December 9, 2004

The News Journal/GARY EMEIGH
This toy soldier, one of three found on the shore at Lewes,
may be 300 years old. The soldiers were found by amateur
archeologist Bill Winkler, of Ocean View.

Thousands of broken artifacts, perhaps from Delaware's first village, found at Lewes.

A long-lost whaling settlement from the early colonization of Delaware in the 1600s may have been discovered - and ravaged - this fall by a federal dredging crew pumping sand from the floor of the Delaware Bay onto a beach near Lewes.

The Army Corps of Engineers replenishment operation definitely hit something in the silt about a half-mile off the beach on the southeast side of Roosevelt Inlet.

Some local history buffs think the pottery shards, glass and other artifacts recently discovered littering the rebuilt beach come from a shipwreck.

But state historians who have examined the relics said they think they come from an early settlement - a community established by Europeans on land that long ago became submerged as the sands shifted in and around Cape Henlopen.

Some think it could even be the very first Dutch foothold in what became Delaware - the whaling village Swanendael, established by 28 Dutch settlers who lasted a year before being killed by Native Americans.

If the artifacts do come from Swanendael, "that would be a huge deal," said E. Michael DiPaolo, executive director of the Lewes Historical Society.

And one that would infuriate historians who long have searched for any trace of the colony.

Amateur archeologist Bill Winkler, of Ocean View, said he was outraged that a historic site was disturbed by a beach renourishment project. The artifacts were badly damaged in the dredging process, he said.

"It's devastating," he said.

The Lewes discovery came in recent weeks as beachcombers started finding hundreds of pieces of broken pottery, glass and other artifacts on the beach, prompting state officials on Wednesday to close to the public the half-mile stretch of sand near the inlet for a detailed survey of the site.

A dive team probably will go off shore to see what remains at the dredge site. State officials also are asking people who may have collected artifacts from the beach to turn them over to the state so a detailed catalog of the artifacts can be compiled.

Pumping completed
The renourishment of the Lewes beach was part of a $3.9 million Army Corps of Engineers project to improve the jetty at Roosevelt Inlet, limit sand shoaling in the inlet and restore the storm-damaged beach.

Starting just after Labor Day weekend, a corps contractor started pumping 11,000 cubic yards of sand from the inlet and 165,000 cubic yards of sand from an underwater site about 3,000 feet off the beach on the southeast side of the inlet, said Merve Brokke, a spokesman for the corps. The work was finished in early October.

"There's no doubt in my mind our dredge hit a buried site about 2,000 feet off the beach," said Robert Dunn, district archeologist with the corps in Philadelphia.

Dunn and Craig Lukesic, an archeologist with the state Office of Historic Preservation, visited the beach on Wednesday and began looking at the artifacts that are mixed amid the sand.

"Right now, the beach is just littered with thousands of pieces," said amateur archeologist Mike Bullard, of Lewes, who also spent several hours on the beach.

Lukesic said he thinks the artifacts came from a small whaling settlement that probably was built right along the Lewes shoreline. Some of the pieces may have been from a trash pile, he said.

"Archeologically, we don't have much from 17th-century Delaware," he said.

If the site turns out to be the Swanendael settlement, the timing would be perfect for Lewes, which will celebrate it's 375th anniversary in 2006, said DiPaolo, of the Lewes Historical Society.

"This is our Roanoke Island," he said, referring to an early "lost colony" in North Carolina. In 1587, over 100 British settlers arrived on the island on North Carolina's coast and established the first English settlement in America. Within three years, they had vanished.

John C. Kraft, a geologist and expert in the movement of sand at Lewes and Cape Henlopen, said the shoreline in the 1600s would have been far different from how we see it today. Cape Henlopen, for instance, would have been more rounded.

Kraft said several years ago he used a map of Swanendael drawn by one of the settlers to try to pinpoint its location. He said it is possible the offshore dredging site could be Swanendael, but calculations he made several years ago did not place the site so far off the modern-day beach.

"It's not impossible," he said. "We never have known quite the scale" of the early Dutch map.

A marker along the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal near the College of Marine Studies commemorates the colony. It is a few hundred feet landward of Roosevelt Inlet, which was dug in the late 1930s.

If the site is Swanendael, it could be significant for the state.

DiPaolo said that the establishment of the Swanendael site by the Dutch gave William Penn the legal grounds he needed to claim the land - a claim hotly disputed by Lord Baltimore.

"Without this colony, the state of Delaware would not exist today," he said.

Shipwreck theory
But not everyone is convinced the artifacts are from Swanendael - or any land settlement.

Winkler said he is convinced the artifacts are from an old shipwreck because he found what he described as ballast stones among debris on the beach that included three toy soldiers, a crumpled pewter tea pot and broken pottery.

Bullard, who wrote a book on a schooner that foundered off Indian River and has become known as the China Wreck, said he would like to get permission to dive at the dredging site because he also thinks the find is a shipwreck.

Bullard said he found similar artifacts on Lewes Beach in 1999 and heard that three ship's anchors had been recovered from the area by commercial fishermen at about the same time.

"Hopefully, the dredger didn't destroy the wreck," he said.

The Delaware Bay and Atlantic Coast are a graveyard for hundreds of small and large ships. Some wrecks are well documented, but others were never recorded.

In his dive guide to Shipwrecks of Delaware and Maryland, author Gary Gentile lists dozens of wrecks ranging from World War II submarines to the British Brig Debraak, which sunk in a sudden windstorm off Cape Henlopen in 1798.

Because there are so many wreck sites, state and federal officials take special steps to try to avoid them when they look for sand sites for beach renourishment projects.

Dunn said corps officials did not anticipate the most recent discovery because they had hired a consultant to survey the site in 1996 with a magnetometer, which detects metal, and side-scan sonar. Nothing unusual was identified, he said.

Dunn said he now thinks he knows why - "you wouldn't see it." A settlement, unlike a ship, would not have had much metal that would be picked up with a magnetometer.

"It would have had such a faint signal, it wouldn't have had shipwreck characteristics," he said.

The site also was probably covered by more than a meter of silt, sand and mud. And there were no records of a historic site or shipwreck in the area, he said.

"We knew there was a whaling settlement somewhere along the coast," Dunn said. "We had no idea it was that far out."

Once the dredging started, no one on the crew was looking for artifacts because they didn't expect to see any, Dunn said.

A corp inspector noticed some pottery shards coming onto the beach with the sand and water and reported it to the Philadelphia District office. But no one told Dunn of the discovery because they assumed it was modern-day trash.

Historians and archeologist said items that have been found are green glazed pottery, known as "borderware" that dates from the 1600s, and fragments of earthenware called Bellarmine Jars that were used to hold liquids. They also found fragments from square, green glass bottles that would have been common in the 1600s.

Lukesic, the state historian, said that the artifacts don't have barnacle scars or smell of sea water, and the edges are sharp. That indicates they were recently broken, probably by the dredge and the trip through a pipe to the beach.

"These artifacts are not waterworn," he said. "They obviously have been ripped from some intact environment."

Lukesic said state officials want to figure out what happened at the site, and work with the corps to minimize damage to the offshore site. Lukesic and DeBraak archeologist Chuck Fithian plan to attend a meeting of a local amateur archeology society tonight at 7 p.m. at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.

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