Sunday, September 18, 2005


Lewes mysteries unraveling


Delaware Online
By Molly Murray
September 15, 2005

Delaware archaeologists think that ship may be the wreck struck last fall by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge scooping up sand for a beach replenishment job at Roosevelt Inlet.

That ship is one of five or six that are being studied as the possible source of shipwreck artifacts that landed on Lewes beach last fall.

"The date's right," said Daniel R. Griffith, project director of the Lewes Maritime Archaeology Project. Griffith said the Bristol ship has promise because maps of the Delaware Bay prepared in the 18th century identify a series of sandbars just off what is now Roosevelt Inlet as "the Sheers."

At the moment, the identity of the ship is just a theory, one of many that state historians are starting to formulate as they sift through thousands of artifacts found on Lewes beach or during dives to the site of the wreckage several hundred yards offshore.

The search also has led them to plow through old shipping journals, newspaper accounts and insurance records that might refer to a ship and cargo that would match what has been found hundreds of years later.

A consultant's report on the shipwreck site is expected to be completed later this month, but enough evidence has been found to alter some of the initial thinking the emerged soon after beachcombers began finding shards of glass, pottery and other items 10 months ago.

Initially, historians thought the relics could have come from a land settlement dating to the earliest colonization of Delaware -- possibly with some link to the state's earliest European settlers, the Dutch.

Research dispels initial thoughts But state archaeologists in recent months have focused on the theory the artifacts came from the wreck of a ship. First they thought the wreck was a coastal boat, perhaps moving on the Delaware River from Lewes to Philadelphia.

Further findings suggest the wreck was an oceangoing vessel. Divers found that the wreck's keel was at least 71 feet long, and may have been as long as 80 feet, indicating the vessel was an oceangoing ship.

The keel from another famous Delaware wreck -- the late 18th century British brig the DeBraak -- was 72 feet long. "This is trans-Atlantic size," Griffith said.

A clearer picture also has emerged from what hasn't been found. There is no anchor, no bell, no rigging, no bits and pieces from a ship (like blocks and shives) that an archaeologist would expect to find, he said.

That leads fellow state archaeologist Charles Fithian to believe the wreck was probably salvaged sometime after it foundered.

Thousands of tiny clues The search for clues is painstaking work as members try to piece together a puzzle from shards of the mystery ship's past. In all, some 11,000 to 12,000 items have been recovered, and each must be marked, sorted and, if possible, fit with other pieces.

Much of the investigative work is taking place in an old World War II bunker at Cape Henlopen State Park. Artifacts are soaked in fresh water to help remove more than two centuries of accumulated salt and mineral deposits. Then they are sorted by style and type. Most of the pieces are just that -- pieces.

The wreck was discovered by accident after the Army Corps pumped 165,000 cubic yards of sand onto Lewes beach as part of a replenishment project that began shortly after Labor Day weekend of last year. Beachcombers started to find artifacts in November.

Since then, state and federal officials have surveyed the offshore sand site, discovered similar intact pottery and glass and found -- buried beneath the sand -- the remains of the foot keel.

They have concluded that the sand-pumping dredge hit a wreck probably dating from between 1760 and 1775. That makes it one of the earliest known shipwrecks discovered in Delaware.

And they now know that the dredge did not actually hit the remains of the ship. Much of the bow was already gone, and the dredge hit the scatter trail from the wreck. Much of the stern end of the ship is intact in the sand, Griffith said.

Some of the key findings so far are a collection of millstones and about a dozen softball-size ingots that show the wooden marks from a mold. They are heavy, so heavy that they appear to be lead. "Antimony," Griffith said.

Antimony would have been mixed with tin and copper to make pewter. It also was sometimes mixed with lead to make letters used in printing presses.

Dutch influence in goods As the sorting has progressed, state researchers have run into a language barrier. No one on the team speaks Dutch, and many of the items and fragments are Dutch and German.

"More and more, as we look at this stuff, it's a very northern European collection," Griffith said.

In recent weeks, researchers ran across fragments of wine bottles that say "Constantia Wyn," a company that was bottling in South Africa during the period.

Griffith said South Africa would have been under the control of the Dutch. "All of the references are written in Dutch," he said. "We've got to get a Dutch-English dictionary." The research continues to paint a story of Colonial trade. "Part of the whole English system was to carefully control trade to the colony," he said.

Once the size of the keel was discovered, the researchers redirected their records search from small coastal vessels to larger ships, such as collier brigs, brigs and sloops.

One of the places they are looking is in the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper started by Benjamin Franklin.

The paper recorded stories of murders, accidents, shipwrecks, even unusual events such as rainbows and parhelion. It covered news events from Philadelphia and its trading cities, such as Cape Briton, London, Barbados and Lewes.

"Sunday, Oct. 31, 1731," one entry about another shipwreck reads. "In a violent storm, the ship Bristol Merchant, Capt. Maynard was drove ashore near our Capes near Lewes. She was a new ship, outward bound.

Tis said the vessel is lost but most of the cargo will be saved." It is pre-Revolutionary War period, during Lewes' trading heyday, that state officials believe the ship ran into trouble.

Griffith said the vessel probably foundered during a storm, but was close enough to shore to make it easy to salvage.

"It's a very interesting story," he said. More answers lay buried So far, federal officials have spent $98,000 for the first two phases of study of the shipwreck. Griffith said state officials are awaiting the consultant's report before they decide what to do next.

There are many remaining questions, he said, such as: "What type of vessel was it, why did it sink, its origin and destination, any lives lost, how was the cargo hold loaded?" Griffith would like to see the underwater site stabilized and additional survey work to find out more about what is there.

"There are a lot of questions that are still offshore," he said.


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