Monday, November 21, 2005


Archaeologists Race Tides To Salvage Blackbeard's Ship

By Frank Graff
November 17, 2005

BEAUFORT, N.C. -- The shipwreck believed to be the remains of Blackbeard's flagship was almost destroyed two months ago by Hurricane Ophelia. Now, archaeologists are scrambling to launch a major salvage effort before the wreck's secrets are lost to the sea.

In the colorful age of pirates, Blackbeard was flashiest of all. In a stroke of 16th-century marketing genius, the buccaneer wore bands of pistols, daggers and a cutlass during battle and tucked burning ropes under his hat to surround himself with smoke.

"He created an image that is still remembered 300 years later -- beard, ribbons aglow, a face that looked almost like Satan itself," said Ben Cherry, who has studied Blackbeard and interprets the pirate at schools and festivals around the world. "He made everyone think he was a nasty guy, which is (his) success."

History records Blackbeard's flagship, the 40-gun Queen Anne's Revenge, ran aground near Beaufort Inlet in 1718. Archaeologists believe a treasure of information about the notorious pirate lies in a jumble of cannon and timber on the ocean floor there.

But the sea still holds the secret of whether the wreckage was really the Queen Anne's Revenge and the site might be destroyed before the truth is known.

"We've only done 5 percent of the wreck, which means the rest is sitting out there in potentially great hazard from storms," said Phil Masters, the underwater salvage expert who found the wreckage nine years ago.

The ship sank in about 24 feet of water and was buried under 15 feet of sand for almost 300 years, archaeologists said. But through the years, the ship also sank in the sand and now sits on bedrock, and storm after storm has gradually stripped away the protective sands.

Only 3 feet of sand now cover the wreckage, and the next violent storm to hit Bogue Banks could destroy the site, archaeologists said.

"We're seeing material we haven't seen before because now it's uncovered," said David Moore, of the North Carolina Maritime Museum. "But we also must ask, ‘What are we missing? What has the storm taken away that we didn't even know was there?'"

Hundreds of artifacts recovered so far point to Blackbeard, such as a 2,500-pound cannon that was recovered in May. Archaeologists at East Carolina University found valuable clues through X-rays.

"All of her guns were loaded and ready to fire. One even had a wad, some cannon shot, another wad and three bolts in the bore," said Wendy Walsh, a lab manager at ECU.

Gold Dust, a ship's bell and a pewter plate also date to when Blackbeard terrorized the Caribbean. But the definitive answer as to whether the wreck is the Queen Anne' Revenge is still missing, and the answer might be lost forever if not recovered soon.

"The treasure is in the history. That's what is important to realize is that there is so much history under the sand out there," Masters said. "It is so frustrating to see it sitting out there and we can't get at it because of a lack of funding."

A major expedition to recover and preserve the wreck would cost at least $6 million over 20 years. Archaeologists are scrambling to find it, and state historians have asked the Army Corps of Engineers for money to help fund a salvage operation.

"You have to accept the fact that (pirates are) glamorized, and it's our job to bring a little bit of truth and life to that story to see who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing," said Mark Wilde Ramsing, an underwater archaeologist with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and project director for the wreckage recovery effort.


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