Thursday, June 30, 2005


An underwater mystery intrigues archaeologists


The Miami Herald
By Susan Cocking
June 26, 2005

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary researchers and state underwater archaeologists are investigating a maritime mystery in the shallow waters of Hawk's Channel near Marathon.

Lying in about 20 feet of water less than two miles offshore are the scenic remains of an ancient shipwreck whose name, origin and destination are unknown.

The wreck doesn't look much like a ship anymore. It consists of a coral-covered pile of ballast stones undercut to reveal some thick ship's timbers. The site is frequented by Goliath grouper, angelfish, lobsters and the occasional nurse shark. Local divers and fishermen have been visiting it for years, and some salvage work was conducted under state contract in 1972, which yielded artifacts such as potsherds, fire bricks, lead shot and hull fasteners. But nothing has turned up so far to positively identify it.

Stephen Beckwith, Upper Keys regional manager for the sanctuary; state underwater archaeologist Roger Smith; NOAA archaeologist Bruce Terrell; and their colleagues have spent the past week mapping the site and documenting it with still photographs and video footage.

Smith said he believes the ship is Spanish and that it ran aground sometime before the 1820s -- due to a number of earthenware olive jars already recovered that the Spanish were known to use for storage containers. If there ever was any treasure aboard, Smith said, it is long gone.

''I think the ship struck this coral mountain, and it may have been with other ships and couldn't get off and was salvaged,'' Smith said. "That was a pretty common thing. The Spanish had pretty good salvage crews.''

Since large mountainous star corals cover the site, researchers have taken a core sample from one of the coral heads to help narrow down the age of the shipwreck. Those results are not complete yet.

After the scientists' work is done, Beckwith said the sanctuary may install a mooring buoy and publish an interpretive guide to the site so that divers and snorkelers can understand and appreciate the natural and cultural resources.

''I think people can come out and appreciate it,'' Beckwith said. "It's for beginning divers, and snorkelers can enjoy it.''

Added Smith: "I'm amazed at how well preserved this shipwreck is, compared to some of the other sites we've seen in the Keys. Everybody wants to know what its name is, how big it was, when it went down. A lot of these, you can't put a name to.''


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