Saturday, August 19, 2006


Villager helps search for artifacts in sunken wreck


The Villages Daily Sun
By Sean Maxfield
August 19, 2006

Bob Petrucelli shows a photograph of clay smoking
pipes that he helped excavate from the Monte Cristi
Shipwreck project. The clay smoking pipes were
manufactured by the Dutch and lost in the shipwreck
off the coast of the Dominican Republic sometime
between 1652 and 1659. George Horsford / Daily Sun

THE VILLAGES — Villager Bob Petrucelli is at home 15 feet under the ocean’s surface. So at home, he says, he’s surprised he hasn’t sprouted gills during a lifetime of diving for buried artifacts.

“I’ve been diving since the ’60s,” Petrucelli said. “I love working underwater.”

Lately, Petrucelli has been helping an archaeologist and his team in an excavation off the coast of the Dominican Republic, trying to find artifacts from a British ship that was sunk between 1652 and 1659.

The team determined the artifacts originated in the 17th century “based on silver coins down there,” Petrucelli said.

The wreck is in shallow water and is referred to as the Monte Cristi Shipwreck Project. The project has been featured in the September 2002 issue of “Scuba Diving,” when the now-clean-shaven Petrucelli had a beard and mustache. He’s known Jerome Lynn Hall, the lead archaeologist on the project, since 1991.

“He’s quite a character,” Petrucelli said.

Petrucelli’s most recent diving expedition started July 8 and was finished at the end of that month.

“I have gone for two to three months,” he said. “I’ve done a ton of wrecks off the East Coast.”

Petrucelli, who is certified as a rescue diver, a deep-sea diver and an aquarium diver, has been looking for artifacts since 1991, when the ship off Hispaniola was first excavated.

“We don’t know the name of (the ship), but we’re getting close,” Petrucelli said. “You get an answer, and then you get 20 more questions.”

Judging by the amount of charred wood on the English oak of the ship, Petrucelli and the team are thinking it may been burned before it sank, but they still are not sure why it went down. They also have found lead musket balls that were lodged in the ship’s wood.

For Petrucelli, helping in the excavation is a hobby. It is much different than the other field he explored before retirement.

“I’m a retired air traffic controller,” he said.

Petrucelli worked with the Federal Aviation Administration for 30 years and was a Navy air traffic controller. He had diver friends in the Underwater Demolition Team, the precursor to the Navy SEALs. They got him involved in diving.

Petrucelli helps clean and log artifacts while using a dredge system to free artifacts from the wreck off the island. On his many trips to the wreck, Petrucelli has found thousands of smoking pipes, silver coins, glassware and lead musket balls. In the ’90s, the team helped bring up a cannon.

In 2006, the team found ceramics, Venetian glass, salt holders and more musket balls. Petrucelli said he was amazed that a piece of Venetian glass, with intricate carvings, had survived centuries without being destroyed.

Petrucelli has found thousands of clay smoking pipes in the wreck, including bulbous and elbow pipes. Some of the pipes were engraved with the initials “EB” for Edward Bird, a Dutch pipemaker.

The artifacts belong to the people of the Dominican Republic. The team keeps the pictures they take and the research. Petrucelli and the team have clearance from the country to do that.

Petrucelli uses dental picks to clean concreted coral from the artifacts. Hall and others have taught Petrucelli how to clean the items properly to prevent damage. He said you are taught to pick away from the item. Petrucelli said the trick is to keep things wet at all times while you clean them.

Petrucelli said Hall’s staff usually consists of eight people, not including the cooks from the Dominican Republic. They live “Survivor”-style on a deserted island near the wreck. He said the team lives in tents, hangs laundry to dry and uses pit toilets, holes with boxes over them, for restroom needs. It is placed away from the camp so as not to attract flies or spread illness. The team must also endure bug bites, and Petrucelli had the marks to prove it. A generator helps shed light on the situation at night, and they are protected constantly.

“We have a guard on the island all the time,” Petrucelli said.

Members of the team take turns going to the mainland via boat for groceries, ice and water. A town is located a mile or two from the main marina. A motorcycle taxi, or motoconcho, helps make the trip around town easier.

“You’re buying for everybody,” he said.

Petrucelli said they eat a lot of goat and “it tastes OK.” They also eat chicken, but only by killing live chickens. The cooks are very good, he said. Still, Petrucelli finds himself working more and snacking less. “I lose weight when I go,” Petrucelli said. “I have lost up to 20 pounds over a summer.”

The team sets up dives, and team members have different jobs that involve cleaning and maintaining the camp and equipment when they are not diving. Petrucelli said the team members are not all archaeologists by trade.

“Most of them love to dive and are interested in archaeology,” Petrucelli said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. You become family with all these people.”

A single dive may take two to three hours. Petrucelli said the divers go about 15 to 20 feet down and exhale when returning to the surface. They take a large tender from the island. In July, the tender was named the Rummy Chum VI, and it was anchored over the wreck. Usually the dives include four divers and a crew that helps the divers prepare their suits and equipment and check the air supply.

The divers do not use tanks. Instead, they use a compressor with hoses attached.

“The compressor feeds you the air,” Petrucelli explained.

He said the divers have 50 feet of hose over their shoulder, a mask, weight belt and regulator. There are no fins, and divers drop straight down.

Grids are marked off all over the wreck area in order to make logging artifacts easier. Each square that is sectioned off is given coordinates, like a piece of graph paper.

“You work out of a 2-meter grid, broken into four quadrants,” Petrucelli said. “You gotta say exactly where you found that stuff.”

The team uses a dredging device that pumps water by using vacuum suction. This way, sediment is cleaned from around artifacts to free them. Two divers called “tailgunners” check the cage at the other end of the underwater dredge pump and collect anything that gets sucked in.

When the team comes to the surface, the first responsibility is the artifacts. They are handled first.

“All the artifacts have to be kept in salt water to preserve them,” he said.

After they finish a dig, they cover the wreck to protect it. They take burlap bags filled with sand and spread it over the site they were excavating. Then they reverse the dredge machine and blow spoil, or excavation waste material, over it to protect the wreck until the next dig.

Petrucelli feels fulfilled by this hobby, and it has kept him occupied.

“Marine archaeology is a fascinating thing,” he said.


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