Sunday, May 22, 2005


Scientists learning more about shipwreck


Delaware online
By Molly Murray
May 20, 2005

Sunken vessel in Lewes found after sand dredging
What lies beneath the surface of Delaware Bay near Roosevelt Inlet is a 71-foot-long ship with little of the hull structure remaining, state archaeologists said Thursday.

It could be a collier brig, a brig or a sloop -- making it almost as big as Delaware's most famous shipwreck, the 18th century British brig DeBraak, said Charles Fithian, a state archaeologist and authority on the DeBraak.

This wreck, though, is earlier and may help historians and archaeologists gain better understanding of coastal trade and commerce in the mid-18th century, Fithian said.

Modern television talk show hosts have it all wrong, Fithian said. "They make globalization seem like it was something new but it wasn't."

Artifacts from the Lewes Beach shipwreck, now known by state officials as the Lewes Discovery Site, come from an array of places -- seltzer water bottles from Germany, porcelain that may be from China and pottery from Great Britain. There are tiny miniature ships and soldiers, a toy clock face, a miniature tea pot and on the larger scale -- two enormous millstones -- one 4 feet in diameter and the other 3 feet -- that were never used in a mill.

Archaeologists know this because the furrows that a miller would cut in the stone are missing, Fithian said.
"We don't know the origin. We suspect them to be British. We know they are not French."

As it turns out, the Lewes Discovery Site may be one of Delaware Bay's greatest maritime mysteries and its earliest known shipwreck.

It was discovered by accident after the Army Corps of Engineers pumped 165,000 cubic yards of sand on Lewes beach as part of a replenishment project that began shortly after Labor Day weekend.

State and federal officials now know the sand-pumping dredge hit a corner of the shipwreck.

There was no sign of the wreck on earlier underwater surveys done prior to the sand pumping.

Once the project was completed -- in October -- beachcombers started finding hundreds of shards of glass and pottery along a half-mile stretch of beach in front of Lewes Yacht Club.

State and federal officials investigated, and concluded just last month, that the artifacts on the beach matched a shipwreck about a half-mile off the beach in 14 feet of water.

In recent weeks, a team of divers tried to get a better idea of the size of the ship and what it was carrying.

"Every ship has a keel. It has a bow. It has a stern," said Craig Lukezic, a state archaeologist who also has been working on the project.

The first step was to find a structure, where timbers intersect and what types of fasteners were used, he said.

Whether they will ever be able to positively identify the ship is uncertain but state officials believe the wreck is vital to better understanding early Colonial trade both in the region and the world.

They believe the ship dates from the mid-1750s -- far earlier than the 1798 DeBraak, which sank in a sudden windstorm off Cape Henlopen in 1798.

"There is some ship's structure there," said Daniel R. Griffith, director of the state's newly formed Lewes Maritime Archaeology Project.

But what is missing -- they have found no masts, no rigging and no fittings -- may be more telling.

They have found and recovered hundreds of fragments of glass and pottery, a shoe sole and shoe buckles, but no sign of human remains, Griffith said.

State officials are trying to determine what additional work is needed.

The next step is to begin detailed research of historic records from the time period to see if archaeologists can learn more about the ship, where it was headed and why it carried millstones, pottery and tiny lead models of ships and soldiers.

"The story is not over," Fithian said. "We've got a long way to go."


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