Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The Brick Wreck: ID sought

By Jessica Machetta
May 26, 2006

Researchers put the finishing touches on drawings
and collect artifact samples Tuesday on the Brick
Wreck near Marathon. The ship is unidentified,
but archaeologists hope their research will soon
change that.

What's being called the Brick Wreck will soon have a positive identification if researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the state and University of West Florida get their way.

Researchers have determined that a 78-foot cargo ship in Marathon waters was built somewhere between 1820 and 1830 and was hauling a heavy load of bricks when it likely ran aground and sank about a mile off Marathon shores.

For three weeks now, crews have been taking photos, video and measurements, drawing everything they see to scale, and comparing its design to other cargo ship's of the same era.

Roger Smith, state underwater archaeologist with the Florida Division of Historical Resources, says video and photography are low-tech tools compared to pencils, paper and measuring tools.

“Those are still the scientific recording devices,” he said.

Smith explained the importance of the artifacts found recently on the wreck.

“The bricks on this site are quite a bit larger than the bricks we're used to seeing today,” he said. “They're about twice the size. That'll help too, the dimensions of the bricks, and plus we've got some diagnostic artifacts - ceramic and glass that are really instrumental because we're able to trace the manufacturer of those pieces and have a window. There's one particular piece that we collected that we've been able to narrow down to a 25-year period, and that's pretty good.”

The shard he refers to is from blue willowware, a design that originated in Asia but gained popularity in the states in the 1800s. Each pattern is specific to a manufacturer, and that's how the timeframe was established.

Unique to the wreck's location is the consistency of the ocean bottom, only 14 feet below the surface. The silt is so fine it acts almost as clay, he explained, essentially cementing the wreck in place. Researchers believe the wreck was covered until storms within the past decade turned the bottom over, exposing the ship's skeleton.

Also unique is the design of the craft itself, said John Broadwater, program coordinator for NOAA's Maritime Heritage program as he flipped through a book of cargo vessels from Florida and the Carolinas. No matches could be found.

“These timbers that make up the frame of the ship are just almost butted up side to side,” he said, “And normally ... typical structures had spacing. They were just separators to stiffen the planking. [This wreck] is more heavily built than most anything I've looked at. We can't think of any parallels that are this heavy. It almost seems like it was made this way to carry extra heavy loads, like the bricks.”

The order of the day Tuesday was to collect samples of the planking and bricks scattered around the site for more analytical research. Finding out what kind of wood the ship was made from may provide insight to where it was built.

“We already know that bricks were coming out of the Carolinas and the Panhandle of Florida,” Smith said. “During this period, those bricks were being transported down the coast of Florida, both sides, to the Tortugas and Key West to build the big coastal forts.”

Fort Jefferson and Fort Zachary Taylor, Smith said, are the largest masonry buildings in the western hemisphere.

Brian Adams, a brick mason's son from the Pensacola area, is covering the research for his master's thesis.

“This is the fun part,” he said, “After that it's sitting and looking at papers and old records” in Tallahassee and Key West.

Though an ID is the holy grail of such a project, Adams won't consider his work a failure if the site remains simply the Brick Wreck.

“I definitely want to find out where it came from,” he said. “But you never know. Things happen and it might not be possible. I'll do my best.”


Hey there! Thanks for posting my article on your blog! (There is a mistake in the date -- it should say "between 1830 and 1850." It was a very cool assignment to cover though. Check out my blog at
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