Thursday, December 16, 2004


Origin of Lewes artifacts still a mystery


Cape Gazette
By Henry J. Evans Jr.
December 15, 2004

In archaeology, theories of how things came to be the way they are can change quickly and that’s what’s happening with ideas on the history and origin of artifacts found on Lewes Beach near the Roosevelt Inlet.

That shift in thinking was part of the discussion at a meeting of the Sussex County chapter of the Archaeological Society of Delaware held at the Zwaanendael Museum Dec 9.

About 30 people crammed into the museum’s tiny space to hear what state archeologists had to say about the recent Lewes Beach finds.

“This is by far the best attended meeting we’ve had. I wonder why?” said Peter M. Bon, president of the Sussex County chapter of the Archaeological Society of Delaware.

Surrounded by the museum’s collection of artifacts from the HMS DeBraak, an earlier discovery found off the coast of Lewes, state archaeologists Chuck Fithian and Craig Lukezic explained that the artifacts found appear to be English and from the early colonial period.

That information perhaps dashes an earlier idea that the materials are from a Dutch coastal whaling settlement, perhaps the lost colony of Swanendael, or a centuries-old trash heap.

“There were no dumps in the early colonial period,” Fithian said. He said the idea of a central trash repository didn’t exist during those times.

This weekend, about 20 volunteers searched the beach just south of the inlet in the area where a U.S. Army Corps’ of Engineers’ dredge deposited material, Lukezic said.

The corps completed work on a beach fill project in October after more than 165,000 cubic yards of sand were pumped onto the beach from sites 2,000 to 3,000 feet off shore.

Lukezic said volunteers who worked on the “controlled surface collection,” came up with more of the same that had been found last week – pottery pieces, bottle fragments and bricks.

“What we wanted to do was check out the patterns on the beach. We sectioned the beach off into 100-foot units,” Lukezic said.

A plot of where the items were found and a description of what was collected will be developed from the volunteer’s work.

“A lot of the artifacts appear to be containers,” Fithian said. He said much of the material appears to be of German or English origin. But so far, nothing with a “maker’s mark” has been found.

Lukezic and Fithian ask that those who picked up artifacts before the beach was closed bring those items to the Zwaanendael Museum to be photographed and cataloged.

There will be two sessions, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 16, and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the same evening.

Archaeologist says artifacts should be placed in a container of fresh, distilled water because if the objects dry out they start to fall apart due to salt crystallization.

Lukezic said the water is 8-to 30-feet deep in the area where the dredge was working when it hit the source of the artifacts.

He said they plan to use resources available to get a better idea of what’s underwater, including 17th century maps and charts of the area.

He said the Army Corps is handling obtaining divers to do an underwater check to see if they can find the origin of the artifacts.

Lukezic said a schedule for the dives has not been set up.

Dan Griffith, state historic preservation officer and director of the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said he’d also be checking the availability of the University of Delaware’s College of Marine Studies’ vessel and divers, as well as National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration assistance.

Griffith said this incident highlights the need for the state to have underwater archaeological expertise as well as the need for more extensive underwater survey of Lewes’ harbor areas.

Archeological Society member Edward F. “Ned” Heite wasn’t optimistic that the public would ever see whatever’s found in an organized display.

“This brings back an unfortunate memory of the DeBraak. It’s still sitting in a bucket of water,” Heite said of the hull of the vessel. The DeBraak sank in 1798 and its location remained unknown until 1984. Fewer than 100 of the more than 20,000 artifacts recovered from the ship are on display. The ship’s hull weighs several tons and is being kept wet to preserve it for future display.

Griffith said a lack of money is why so few DeBraak artifacts are available for public viewing. He said $3 million has been spent so far in the handling, storage and restoration of DeBraak artifacts.

But excitement about the new finds remains up beat.

“So far, what we’ve seen has been a pretty remarkable collection. This material seems to be earlier than the DeBraak and is totally different,” Fithian said. He said the artifacts were in a “sealed” environment and none of the usual marine growth that can be seen on long-submerged items is visible.

“Much of the material we’re seeing appears to be very closely dated time-wise,” Fithian said. He said the artifacts now look as though they date to the third quarter of the 17th Century up to about 1720. He said the artifacts “get younger” as the dredge material was deposited southward. Fithian said nothing found appears to as early as the period when Dutch settlers were in the area and everything appears to be of English origin.

The amateur archaeologists are sticking with their initial theory that the artifacts were part of a ship’s cargo.
Bill Winkler, founder of the Delaware Marine Archaeological Society, says he believes that a boat ferrying goods from a larger ship to shore might have capsized spilling its contents into the bay and that’s where they were left for the past couple of centuries.

“That could explain why we haven’t seen any ship’s rigging or materials like that,” Winkler said.

Lukezic said the need to shift thinking to adjust to new information goes with the territory of working in archaeology.
“We’ve got all these bricks without any mortar and we’ve got all these containers so it kind of looks like cargo. But I’ll change my mind again tomorrow,” Lukezic said with a laugh.

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