Friday, April 29, 2005


Historic find offers peek at the past


Delaware online
By Molly Murray
April 27, 2005

The News Journal/BOB HERBERTA
Toy soldier firing a gun is believed to be from an
18th-century shipwreck found in the Delaware Bay.

LEWES -- About 14 feet beneath the surface of Delaware Bay, underwater archaeologist Lee Cox groped around like a blindfolded man in a carnival maze.

Brisk winds kicked up choppy seas and pitched Cox and other divers around in the shallows. The water was filled with silt.

Cox was performing archaeology by groping his way along the bottom in search of shapes from the distant past. By Sunday, he and other archaeologists were certain of what they were feeling in the sand. Now, they have made their conclusions public and announced the discovery of a cache of millstones from a sunken 18th-century cargo ship.

State historians think the grinding stones could have been destined for the dozens of mills that sprang up in Sussex County in the first century after the earliest European settlements (the mid-1600s) in Delaware. The goods probably were being shipped down the Delaware River from a larger community, such as Philadelphia.

"Another chapter in Delaware's rich history is about to unfold," said Harriet Smith Windsor, Delaware's secretary of state and the overseer of historic sites in the state.

The shipwreck could be significant for Delaware and other coastal states because it dates from early Colonial settlement and could yield important discoveries about the region and the types of goods that were traded along the waterway.

If the ship turns out to be a cargo sloop or shallop, it would be the only known shipwreck of its kind in the region, said Charles Fithian, curator of archaeology for Delaware State Museums.

"We haven't worked on a shipwreck of this scale since the deBraak discovery," said Dan Griffith, director of the state's newly formed Lewes Maritime Archaeology Project. The deBraak, a British military ship on convoy duty, sank in a wind storm off Cape Henlopen in 1798. It was discovered two decades ago by treasure hunters.

"This is an investigation in progress," Griffith said. "Every time we go down we learn something new."

A purely accidental find
The Roosevelt Inlet shipwreck was discovered during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sand pumping project last fall. A dredge accidentally plunged into the underwater site and pumped shards of glass, pottery and other relics onto the Lewes beach.

Since late November, state archaeologists have been investigating whether the site several hundred yards offshore was a shipwreck or the remains of a Colonial-era land settlement that dipped beneath the waterline as sands shifted.

The Lewes discovery came after the Army Corps completed a $3.9 million project to improve the jetty at Roosevelt Inlet, limit sand shoaling in the inlet and rebuild about a half-mile stretch of storm-damaged beach.

In November, beachcombers started finding shards of earthenware pottery, green glass and stoneware scattered over the freshly pumped sand beach.

State and federal officials closed the beach to artifact hunters and started investigating - sifting through mountains of sand, then trying to find the offshore source of the artifacts.

Just scratching the surface
Cox said the dredge probably dug into only a fraction of the artifacts that rest about 2,000 feet off the beach.

Still unknown are the precise location of the ship, what was included in the cargo, and details about the vessel or why it sank. Griffith said the shipwreck probably occurred between 1750 and 1760.

That would have been about 120 years after the first ill-fated settlement in southern Delaware known as Zwaanendael. Those settlers eventually were overrun and killed by American Indians after they established a fort off what is now the Lewes & Rehoboth Canal in Lewes.

"That looks pretty firm right now," Griffith said of the date. "We were still a colony. We were still part of Pennsylvania."

Cox, a partner in the underwater archaeology firm Dolan Research Inc., is under contract with the Corps of Engineers. His company already has completed a survey of the bay bottom using remote-sensing equipment. A side-scan sonar image of the dive site shows a rough and bumpy picture of the bottom, but no clear outline of a ship.

Cox said he thinks it could be under three to four feet of sand. Divers still are looking. The mystery, Smith Windsor said, "is unfolding daily."

Protected site
The offshore dive site is protected under state and federal laws and is off limits to treasure hunters. Corps and state officials said Tuesday that the half-mile strip of beach at Roosevelt Inlet that was closed last fall is now open to the public.

Divers have found brick, stoneware, bottle bases, necks and rims, earthenware and even a complete stoneware jug. They also have found lead sheathing from the ship's hull, and an intact pestle from a mortar and pestle used for grinding. They also recovered tiny military figurines and ships made of lead that were probably part of a game called "The Game of Kings," Fithian said.

Delaware archaeologists hope the discovery will help them better understand Colonial life and trading in the Delaware Valley - perhaps enough to enhance Delaware's Colonial reputation for regional commerce.

Historians know the artifacts come from a variety of countries, including Germany, England and perhaps France. There may even be home-grown pottery from Pennsylvania.


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