Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Archaeologists explore mystery ship


By Steve Gibbs
August 05, 2005

KEY LARGO - The ocean is often reluctant to reveal its mysteries, but archaeologists from both sides of the Atlantic are busy trying to unravel the secrets of an unknown wooden ship.

The ship once measured 25 meters long by 10 meters wide and, although it was a merchant ship possibly a British packet boat it was fully armed with a cannon. Between 1740 and 1760, the ship crashed on the reef and foundered about two miles southwest of where Carysfort Light Tower sits today.

Like many of the 1,000 or so shipwrecks off the Florida Keys, the name, nation and the details of its final moments are lost. It no longer sports cannon. In fact, just about everything that could identify this ship has been looted or washed away by time and tide. But the Anglo-Danish Maritime Archaeological Team, headed by co-founder and director Simon Q. Spooner, has laid out a grid along the wreck site where students of underwater archaeology have been surveying the bottom in an attempt to identify the ship.

They hope to solve the riddle of the "Button Wreck," so named because a number of silver and pewter uniform buttons have been found amid the wreck debris. "It's like trying to piece together a giant, underwater, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the finished product," Spooner said Wednesday morning, just before holding his dive mask and dropping backwards off a boat to dive the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, offering 150 feet of horizontal visibility.

Below, gathered in small working groups of two and three divers, archaeology students from Europe and the U.S. survey the wreck site under the direction of Spooner, who also teaches at Bristol University's Centre for Maritime Archaeology and History in England.

Young archaeologists come to the Upper Keys for two weeks at a time and local residents house them. For many of the student volunteers having their lodging costs covered makes the trip financially possible. A grid of two-inch white and orange PVC pipe, coupled at the corners to form three-foot connected squares like a checker board, covers the bottom between anchored boats, all flying dive flags.

On the bottom, divers gently brush away sand from between heavy timbers that have been recently exposed. The work is slow and the volunteers are meticulous, recording measurements on white, underwater slates. Spooner holds up a piece of bone that bears two knife marks.

"Perhaps some sailor's last meal," he said. A long orange marker delineates the keelson of the ship. Spooner points out a lower bow assembly and the pump well. Later he inspects a gudgeon, one of three steel fixtures that once connected the rudder to the ship. "We suspect this was an American vessel captured by the British and manned by a British crew," Spooner said. "We have found no diagnostic artifacts that would help identify it. Apparently local leeches [looters] have paid a visit."

But Spooner said teaching budding maritime archaeologists is his primary educational purpose. "We find that archaeology students were not getting the hands-on experience that they really need, so we started a non-profit [organization] in order to try to identify these historically precious artifacts and encourage the next generation," he said. "Just because they're British or French or Spanish ships doesn't mean they are not an integral part of your American historical heritage. After all, they wrecked in your waters."

Spooner praised local volunteers as well, saying his programs are funded through grants alone.

He noted the efforts of J.J. Kennedy, a retired airline pilot who was familiar with the wreck site and volunteers his time and his boat to provide support for the project.

When the study has concluded Spooner will report his findings to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. He said ADMAT will provide interim reports before a final report is issued in about two years. He said those reports will be provided to the Florida Archives so that future students would be able to read them.

Steve Beckwith, the sanctuary's Upper Keys manager, drove a group of journalists to the wreck site Wednesday and introduced them to Bruce Terrell, a senior archaeologist for the sanctuary, who was there for technical assistance.

Terrell is responsible for issuing permits to survey wreck sites in the sanctuary and said he fully supports Spooner's work. "Not only do we want to preserve the natural resources within the sanctuary, it is important to also preserve the archaeological resources such as the great wrecks off our coasts," he said. "Part of our Marine Heritage Program is to manage historical resources such as the Button Wreck. "People are fascinated by archaeology and history, so we want to bring in new people who want to read the past."

Terrell said the wreck was found in the 1960s by treasure hunters. It was lost again until Jimmy Longendyke located it in the 1970s. Terrell said sand shifts in the wake of storms and can bury shipwrecks for many years until they are uncovered once more.


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