Saturday, April 16, 2005


Ancient shipwreck determined to be source of Lewes artifacts


Cape Gazette
By Henry J. Evans Jr.
April 15, 2005

Expect the beach to be open to the public next week.
State archaeologists now say the source of artifacts deposited on Lewes Beach near the Roosevelt Inlet this winter are from the earliest shipwreck ever found in Delaware waters.

“It could be as much as 50 years earlier than the DeBraak,” said Dan Griffith, director of the newly formed Lewes Maritime Archaeological Project overseeing research into the artifacts.

Griffith said the DeBraak, a British warship, sank in 1798 and archaeologists are dating the Lewes Beach wreck to between 1750 and 1760.

The hull of the DeBraak was found in Delaware waters in 1984. Griffith said artifacts recovered from it provided a look at life aboard a military vessel of the period.

He said the Lewes Beach wreck could likely provide a look at another aspect of local history.

“This vessel was a commercial vessel well within the English and Colonial period in Delaware and Lewes. It should give us a totally different look at Colonial life in Delaware,” Griffith said.

He said what’s still unclear is the size of the ship. Next week, weather permitting, divers are scheduled to take a closer look at the area.

Griffith said water depth in the vicinity of the wreck varies depending on tide but is generally about 15 feet. However, visibility in the bay is typically very poor.

He said the dive mission would focus on further assessment of the nature of the site as opposed to recovery of artifacts.
“Our theory is that this was a commercial delivery, probably headed to Lewes or some point south.

It might have been trying to get around Cape Henlopen to protect itself from a storm and it didn’t work,” Griffith said.

He said a theory, still developing, is that the ship departed from Philadelphia or New Castle and was making local deliveries before it would have set out on a trans-Atlantic crossing.

“The kinds of artifacts, the range being found, makes it look very much like a commercial vessel,” Griffith said.
Tim Slavin, Director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said an underwater survey conducted in February helped researchers conclude they’re dealing with a shipwreck.

“This is really an exciting moment for all of us. Anytime you find a historic site like this, it brings about a sense of awe and wonder,” Slavin said.

Slavin said what was initially described as an “underwater mound” would now be more accurately described as a “protuberance” that might turn out to be a ship.

The protuberance was detected through the use of side-scanning sonar, bottom-profiling sonar and a metal detector’s survey of the bay floor. Divers also did two brief inspections of the area.

An Army Corps of Engineers dredge, working on a beachfill project that ended last October, apparently hit the wreck containing artifacts and pumped fragments ashore along with 165,000 cubic yards of sand.

The Army Corps, in cooperation with the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, closed the beach in December after beachcombers found shards of dishes, bowls, bottles, clay pipes and metal toy figurines on the beach and at the water’s edge.

Griffith said a recent survey of the beach surf line indicates there are still numerous shards in the water. He said it is not clear at this point whether a cleanup of the area would be conducted or whether Mother Nature would be left to handle the job.

He said such a cleanup would be a very expensive task.

Griffith said the waters off Lewes Beach in the vicinity of the Roosevelt Inlet remain closed to the public under authority of the state’s Antiquities Act, which protects “ships embedded in the bottom of state-controlled submerged lands.”

He said anyone anchoring, dredging, diving, removing objects from the bay floor or in any way disturbing or altering any archaeological resource would be subject to severe penalties including confiscation of boats, vehicles and other equipment.

Griffith said he expects the beach to open to unrestricted public access next week.


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