Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Divers find timbers of shipwreck, cargo pieces


Cape Gazette
By Henry J. Evans Jr.
May 01, 2005

We may never know exactly what caused a merchant ship to wreck and sink just off Lewes Beach more than 250 years ago, but we do know that somehow such a vessel found its way to the bottom of the Delaware Bay.

Divers are now trying to unravel the mystery, crawling on the bay floor, at times barely able to see inches in front of themselves, in an effort to piece together a more detailed picture.

“We’re trying to expose features of the site, wooden features, several millstones that we want to measure and map. The goal is to try and identify the side of the vessel,” said Lee Cox, owner of Dolan Research, the marine archaeology company diving on the wreck.

However, one amateur archaeologist with wreck diving experience said there could be two ships – one atop or one adjacent to the other.

Divers can stay submerged for up to two hours connected to an umbilical that supplies air and communications with the dive supervisor onboard the boat above.

Cox said money for the dive portion of the project had been expended, but because they were able to save money in other areas, he planned to remain on-site for the remainder of the week.

“I know how important it is, and we need to get as much information as we can,” Cox said. Dolan Research is working under a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to find out as much as possible about what experts now say is a merchant ship that sank sometime in the mid 1700s.

An Army Corps of Engineers dredge, working on a beach-fill project that ended last October, apparently hit a debris field containing artifacts from the wreck and pumped artifact fragments ashore along with 165,000 cubic yards of sand.Cox said most of the artifacts are buried in up to 4-feet of sand on the bay floor, in waters that vary up to about 14 feet, depending on tidal conditions.

“Little or none of the ship’s fabric was disturbed by the dredge,” said Dan Griffith, director of the newly formed Lewes Maritime Archaeological Project overseeing research into the find.

“Nothing of this magnitude has been discovered since the DeBraak,” Griffith said. The DeBraak, a British warship, went down in a storm in 1798. What remained of its hull was found in Delaware waters in 1984. Since its recovery, the hull has been kept wet in an area warehouse in an effort to preserve it. At an April 26 press briefing at the Zwaanendael Museum, Griffith, Secretary of State Harriett Smith Windsor, Timothy Slavin, director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, and other state officials announced confirmation that the source of the artifacts is a sunken ship.

Although thousands of pieces of artifacts have already been recovered, Griffith said it’s likely to be a tip of the iceberg now that they know they’re dealing with a ship. Chip DePrefontaine, the Army Corps’ project manager said the agency has spent $90,000 to $100,000 on archaeological work since the dredging operation ended.

The state has spent $25,000 to $30,000 on archaeological research of the site, Slavin said.

“The materials that we’ve found are not necessarily representative of what was on the ship,” Griffith said. He said they are still working with the belief that the artifacts date to 1750-1760.

“We haven’t seen any data that would change that,” Griffith said.He said a theory is developing that the vessel was a merchant ship sailing from Philadelphia, New Castle or some point to the north and was delivering products southward.Divers have located millstones with different shapes on the bay floor.

“We know there were several mills in the area and the stones could have been headed to those,” Griffith said.

State archaeologist Chuck Fithian and a few other archaeologists are working on stabilizing and cataloging the thousands of artifact fragments.

Work with the mid-1700s material is being done in a makeshift lab setup inside a 1940s-era World War II bunker.

Folding tables draped with plastic sheeting hold small mounds that are fragments of broken bottles, jugs, crockery, and window glass that is being sorted into various groupings.

Fithian said one of the goals is to try and determine how many of each type of bottle, pottery or crock ware they could be dealing with.At least nine “military miniatures” were found on the beach last year. Inaccurately called “toy soldiers” by the untrained, Fithian said the molded-lead figurines were not children’s toys but were actually used by strategists to set up tabletop war games.

He said among the miniatures found are a kneeling rifleman, a color guard soldier, and a sailing ship. Another viewpointFrom the time artifacts first began washing onto Lewes Beach, amateur archaeologists like Bill Winkler said the source of the material was a sunken ship.

“It could actually be two ships. It’s called super positioning,” Winkler said in an April 28 telephone interview.

Winkler, a founding member of the Delaware Marine Archaeological Society, said the state doesn’t have anyone who is trained in marine archaeology so they couldn’t interpret the clues.

“You had ballast found in the form of round river rocks, you had cobblestone type rocks and Muntz metal sheathing was found.“There was also half of a bronze spike and an 8- pound sounding weight. That weight would have been kept on a ship,” Winkler said.

He said Muntz metal sheathing was invented in 1743 and used to protect a ship’s bottom.

Winkler said the theory that the ship was working its way south from Philadelphia, is “nothing but speculation.”

“They could have also just crossed the Atlantic from Europe and were headed to Philadelphia,” Winkler said. He said that’s exactly what happened to the Faithful Steward when it sank in the Delaware Bay in 1785, headed to Philadelphia after crossing the Atlantic from Europe.

He said he bases the idea that there could be two wrecks – one on top of another – on bricks that could date to the Dutch period of the 1600s. Based on what little is known about this most recent find, Winkler also ventured a guess as to the size of the ship.

He said one class of merchant ship of the period was known as a “2,400-tonned” vessel. “That would be a big ship,” if it were one of those vessels, Winkler said.


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