Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Ballast stones, timbers may hold clues of centuries old shipwreck


Keys News
By Timothy O'Hara
June 21, 2005

MARATHON — Underwater archeologists are hitting the water this week in hopes of uncovering a mystery that has remained dormant below the sea for centuries.

Archeologists have little to go on except for the ballast stones and exposed ship timbers left on the sea floor off Marathon, said Stephen Beckwith, Upper Region manager with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Underwater archaeologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Florida are conducting a 10-day mission to document the shipwreck — possibly centuries old — in shallow waters off Marathon. The team hopes to obtain information that will help them identify the mystery wreck and add a new chapter to the maritime history of the Florida Keys.

"The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary welcomes this project as a chance to learn more about a potentially significant Keys shipwreck, share that knowledge with the community and better plan for the site's protection," Beckwith said. "Protecting our maritime heritage and sharing the stories behind shipwrecks with the American public is an important part of the sanctuary's mission."

The crew hit the water Monday to place a mooring buoy above the wreck site. Sanctuary officials were cagey about giving an exact location because of fear of looting. The site and its contents are protected under federal law. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act empowers the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to manage archaeological and historical resources in its waters. It prohibits disturbing, removing or possessing artifacts without a permit.

The archaeologists plan to map the ballast pile, exposed ship timbers and the coral, and to document the site using video and still photography. The team may take small samples of wood from the timbers and conduct some minor excavation in areas devoid of coral colonies and other sensitive sea life in order to gather data and identify the shipwreck, They will document any artifacts uncovered, and may remove some for diagnostic purposes. The team also plans to survey the area seaward of the wreck for additional maritime artifacts, sanctuary spokeswoman Cheva Heck said.

"The mystery wreck site is unique because many of the ship's timbers are exposed beneath the ballast pile," said Roger Smith, a state underwater archaeologist. "Due to the size of both the ship's timbers and the ballast pile, this appears to have been a large vessel. We believe it may be historically significant, possibly even predating the Spanish fleet that was decimated by a ferocious storm in the Straits of Florida in 1733."

The site as been known to some local divers for years, but no one has conducted any significant research of it, Heck said.

Funding for the project is through a grant from the NOAA Maritime Heritage Program. Both the sanctuary and the state of Florida are providing personnel, equipment and other resources to support the project.


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