Preserving a Pirate Ship

Originally published in Carolina Shore. All mini-paragraphs are my sort of field notes for you, the reader.

It was a November day in 1717, but it wasn’t cold that made the French sailors quake. While sailing the warm Caribbean waters near the island of Martinique, their ship - a merchant-turned-slave ship named La Concorde - encountered fearsome enemies. By the end of the day, the majority of La Concorde’s sailors and their human cargo would be set on shore, watching in dismay as their ship disappeared into the horizon. La Concorde underwent some restructuring and was rechristened. Her new name? The Queen Anne’s Revenge. Six months after her rebirth as a pirate ship, she would be grounded by her captain, Blackbeard. For 278 years, she rested at the bottom of the ocean amongst the sand and silt, waiting to be uncovered.

When nautical archaeologist David Moore found out a copy of his research on the Queen Anne’s Revenge had been given to a treasure hunter, he was livid. Moore recounted his history with the ship in his office upstairs in the Beaufort Maritime Museum, where he is now the curator of nautical archaeology. Although he spent his earlier days working on sites and artifacts in Florida, he now makes himself at home under a sloping roof, surrounded by blueprints, documents, mementos of past travels, and books from floor to ceiling. It’s an office that would make Indiana Jones proud. By the time his work was handed off, his research had been building for over five years, starting with a school assignment at ECU. The project was writing up a prospectus, a paper delineating the details of an archaeological excavation; where funding would come from, who would work on it, what happened to the artifacts if they discovered a wreck, etc. Not being one for theoretical exercises, Moore put together information that would be necessary in the search for an actual wreck - the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Just one wall of Mr. Moore’s office. Multiply this by all four walls of the room, and throw in some tall, leaning stacks for good measure. It’s heavenly, in a topsy-turvy professor kind of way. Since books have a tendency to hop up and walk away at a museum (where fellow curators borrow them for reference), he has gotten in the habit of keeping as many as possible in his home.

Just one wall of Mr. Moore’s office. Multiply this by all four walls of the room, and throw in some tall, leaning stacks for good measure. It’s heavenly, in a topsy-turvy professor kind of way. Since books have a tendency to hop up and walk away at a museum (where fellow curators borrow them for reference), he has gotten in the habit of keeping as many as possible in his home.

Although he couldn’t get anyone interested in the project at the time, he kept his research alive and well, carrying his QAR file with him any time he visited a new archive. Philip Masters (the late founder and president of Intersal Inc.) first encountered Moore’s prospectus when filing for a state permit to search for a different wreck, El Salvador. He was literally walking out the door when he was called back by Richard Lawrence, the head of the unit. There were some other 18th century ships Masters should keep an eye out for, Lawrence said, and he handed over a copy of Moore’s prospectus, which Moore himself had filed with the state just in case it should be of interest.

Masters read through the prospectus, intrigued by the idea of a pirate ship of such historical significance hidden so close to the coast. After doubling back and doing his own research, he ended up filing for two search permits with the Department of Cultural Resources; one for El Salvador, and one for the Queen Anne’s Revenge. He exchanged several phone calls with Moore (who was warming up to the idea) and other experts over years of getting things lined up for the search. Intersal brought on Mike Daniel - historian and veteran underwater explorer - as their director of operations, and in 1996 all was ready. On November 11, Intersal began surveying the waters around Beaufort Inlet. Just ten days later, on the eve of the anniversary of Blackbeard’s death, Moore received a call from Daniel.

“I think we found your wreck,” he said. “We’re sitting on top of a pile of cannon and a couple of big anchors out here. The cannon look right.”

There was a false alarm a few days earlier, so for a moment it was like the case of the boy who cried wolf.

There are also some intriguing theories about Blackbeard being a local Carolina boy, and that he possibly grounded the ship near Fort Macon on purpose, but as yet it’s just a theory and I had no time or space to go into it. I’ve been pitching that story every since - if you’re an editor, please take me up on that. Please, please, please.

IMG_3460.jpg

Throughout twenty years of excavation, the site has continued to look right. Although there has not been one guidepost artifact that can provide a definite identification (yet), as a body the items found tell the story historians expected if the ship was truly the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The find was announced to the public in March of 1997, and after a brief media circus, the official QAR Project began. Initially, conservation was based out of Morehead City. The UNC Marine Sciences building hosted a field office, and artifact storage was housed in one of the Carteret County Community College warehouses, where the college had kindly made a space that was tucked safely away from all of the fishing gear and large equipment.

Conditions for the QAR excavations are far from ideal, Kim Kenyon (QAR conservator and field director for the 2015 excavation) explained. On a good day, visibility underwater extends five feet. On the bad days, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. This visibility issue actually prevented the Intersal team from finding the QAR on their first pass just outside Beaufort Inlet - they had sent divers down in the same location, but they could not see the wreck just a few feet away. Visibility aside, a nautical archaeologist is at the mercy of the weather. Kenyon’s colleague Erik Farrell added,

“If you draw a Venn diagram of dive season and hurricane season, it’s a circle.” Oddly enough, hurricane season is still more stable than summer as far as high waves and heavy chop, two factors archaeologists must bow to. The months of all-day expeditions and finicky conditions have been well worth their while. So far, the excavation has uncovered 24 cannons, coin weights, pewter platters and plates, three intact onion-shaped wine bottles (a miracle, since you can pretty much frown at old glass and ruin it), thousands of musket balls, a few fragments of gold and mystery objects, crusted over with concretion and awaiting treatment. All of these objects help give us a better understanding of life aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, but as Moore pointed out, discovery is just the tip of the iceberg. Each month in the field represents years of work in the lab, with artifacts under the care of Sarah Watkins-Kenney, lab director and chief conservator.

IMG_3443.jpg

With her level of education and experience (B.S. from Cardiff university, Masters from City University in London, a PhD in the works and forty years of conservation work, including ten years of working for the British Museum as the head of their metals, ceramics and glass conservation), one might expect English born Watkins-Kenney to be what our grandmothers would call “uppity”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Soft-spoken and down to earth, Watkins-Kenney has been leading the conservational charge since 2003. When she joined the project, there was not a proper lab - just a walled-off portion of a warehouse connected to one of ECU’s satellite research campuses outside Greenville (due to development on the Carteret Community College campus, the project needed a new home base).  

Thinking through everything from concrete floors to glassware, Watkins-Kenney and her team slowly but surely started pulling the pieces of the lab together. Finding the necessary equipment was a scavenger hunt drawing from a mixture of sources: the original lab, ECU surplus, state surplus, and purchase when there was enough funding. Because the research campus is in a designated wetland (affectionately referred to as The Swamp), they had to put a plan into place for waste disposal; nothing could simply go down the drain. After months of work, the lab was ready for the QAR project, which moved in fall of 2003. The following January ECU - who Watkins-Kenney says has been wonderful throughout the whole process - put on a dedication, complete with a ribbon cutting and cake. Since then, the team has been doing the everyday work that is required for extraordinary discoveries.

A mountain of paperwork is part of the daily and weekly routine of anyone in an academic pursuit. For Watkins-Kenney this includes grant-writing to make sure the project stays funded and communications with people up the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources chain in Raleigh, while for other members of the lab like Kenyon and Farrell it means typing up status reports about ongoing projects. Paperwork aside, each day conservators are working to remove concretion (a hard shell that forms around iron artifacts, and anything that happened to be near them). Whatever the size of a concretion, Farrell says that it gets broken down with the same tool, which is basically a miniature jackhammer with a tip the size of a ballpoint pen. Since a cannon could take up to six months with someone working on it for hours each day, the tool’s buzzing and a brackish but not unpleasant scent fill the lab at any given hour.

After concretion removal, artifacts have to go through the process of desalination - removing all of the salt the items have soaked in after three hundred years in Beaufort Inlet. If conservators were to simply remove the concretion and let the artifact dry out, the artifact would crumble into a salty pile of dust a few days later. The process looks different depending on whether or not the artifact is metal, but the common ground is that the artifact must stay submerged in water, and that the process is gradual (a cannon can take up to seven years). Checking on the salt/chloride content of artifacts in desalination tanks is all part of the weekly happenings for the conservators.

The anchor from    Blackbeard’s    ship. It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m cool as a cucumber. It’s fine.

The anchor from Blackbeard’s ship. It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m cool as a cucumber. It’s fine.

The work of archaeological conservation - particularly for artifacts found underwater - is an interdisciplinary labor of love. Just for finding the site, there had to be a mixture of history, cartography, geography and mathematics. In the lab, conservation is a mesh of minding the historical record and applying science.

“It’s great because it’s archeology and history, but you’re actually dealing with artifacts,” Watkins-Kenney said. “But to deal with artifacts, you have to have a science background to understand what’s happening to them and what you need to do.” For instance, the treatment of wood. They have one large piece of the Queen Anne’s Revenge - most of the rest of it was broken down by the warm water before she was discovered. If the lab’s team were to only bring it through the desalination process, the wood would become a mangled mess. Understanding what is going on with the artifact down to a cellular level enables them to treat it properly, by impregnating it with a substance that will prevent the cells from shriveling up, keeping the wood as strong as it can be and ready for study. Each artifact passes through many hands and many spheres of knowledge for a complete process. The career path of every conservator working on the QAR is a winding one with stops in different disciplines and other projects, but their combined experiences weave together into a tapestry of knowledge and ability - and contacts to call when they come across a surprise.

During a seemingly routine cleaning out of a cannon chamber, Erik Farrell found something he didn’t think was possible on a centuries-old shipwreck: Mixed in with a black muck, he found fragments of paper. Farrell reacted as any self-respecting historian or conservator should: he swore profusely, then called Kenyon over for a second opinion. Since paper is delicate, it was imperative to treat it quickly and correctly. On the advice of paper conservators, they carefully separated the pages and allowed them to dry. This ran against the grain of how to preserve any other artifact, so much so that Farrell spent precious minutes going back and forth with the paper people, double and triple checking that they really meant what they said - but it worked. How does paper survive almost three hundred years underwater in the first place?

IMG_3562.jpg

“It shouldn’t.” Farrell said. He went on to explain, “It’s pretty well sealed off. It must have been basically water tight for a while, and had time to concrete over without any kind of water flowing through there, and it must have been buried fairly quickly and not really gotten oxygen in. It’s a really particular set of circumstances to have this happen.” Kenyon added that although they can’t confirm that the pages were in a book that was actually read by the pirates, the surrounding research revealed reading to be a common skill shared by sailors, challenging the stereotype of the uneducated runaway mariner. After pouring over wills, court records and legal documents Watkins-Kenney found that when ordinary seamen passed away, they would leave behind their sea chest with their most precious earthly belongings - and often the chests were full of books.

While Watkins-Kenney researched the reading habits of sailors, Kenyon took on the task of identifying the book the fragments came from. She had a few clearly identifiable words, sixteen scraps of paper the size of a quarter or smaller, and literally volumes of reading through 17th and 18th century books, searching for the twin in print. After months of scouring everything she could get her hands on, Kenyon was typing up her report to say that the investigation was ongoing when she decided to double check a couple of books, one last time. She found her source: The first edition of A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711 by Captain Edward Cooke. The page fragments provide the first archaeological evidence of books aboard Blackbeard’s ship, and will help give historians a better idea of the life he lead. With the papers safely in the hands of conservators at the state archives (where they will undergo further testing and treatment), the crew at the QAR lab can turn their attention to upcoming projects.

The concretion work station, complete with tubes for waste removal - something that is carefully regulated.

The concretion work station, complete with tubes for waste removal - something that is carefully regulated.

In addition to her normal work of keeping the lab running, Watkins-Kenney is beginning to rework the QAR Project’s management plan. A management plan a document that charts a course for a venture’s direction, priorities and approach - the one they are using has lasted since 1999, and Watkins-Kenney is hoping that the updated version will guide them through another twenty years of work and discovery. One looming task is to finish the excavation of the ship, which still has 40% of her contents on the ocean floor. At a depth of about twenty-one feet, the remnants of the Queen Anne’s Revenge are in relatively shallow water. A sizeable hurricane such as Irene would pose a significant threat to the site, and to the knowledge we could gain from it. Because of legal complications, the team has not been able to excavate since 2015. In an ideal world (where the legal situation is unsnarled, sufficient funding is found and three-month dive seasons can be had), Watkins-Kenney estimates that the site could be cleared of 100% of its artifacts in three to four years. For now, she will work with the artifacts she has, and try to take the research to a deeper level, exploring the ship’s time as La Concorde.

“Blackbeard had it for six months. Six months!” she repeats for emphasis. The ship was sailing for roughly seven years before that, and yet due to her infamous last owner she is not really seen for her whole history. Watkins-Kenney is excited to peel back the layers and see what the ship can tell us about herself, about the sailors and enslaved who lived aboard her for the years before Blackbeard, along with the world during Blackbeard’s era.

“It’s also interesting because you get things that they took from other ships as well, so there’s things on it from all over the world. So it’s not just a North Carolina story, and that’s actually what’s so interesting is because a lot of people think shipwrecks are like time capsules. But that’s thinking of a ship as only itself. But in fact, a ship is like a keyhole, it’s like a window to the whole world, because they traveled. They give you a glimpse of the whole, the global picture, not just a little time capsule.”

I believe this is a tiny watch gear, from the QAR/La Concorde, of course.

I believe this is a tiny watch gear, from the QAR/La Concorde, of course.

This more complete picture of Blackbeard’s world is an emphasis of the newly-expanded Queen Anne’s Revenge exhibit at the Beaufort Maritime Museum. As 2018 holds the 300th anniversary of both the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck and Blackbeard’s death, new landmarks and educational opportunities have opened across the state, showcasing the pirate and his impact on the state. Just in time to mark the anniversary of the QAR stranding in June, a historical  marker was placed outside Fort Macon, and the Maritime Museum hosted a symposium on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, her notorious owner and crew, and opened its extended exhibit. The 850 additional square feet and broadened view of the world in which Blackbeard and crew lived will provide an experience rich with both specifics and context - and artifacts, of course. The archeologist/historian’s perspective is that these treasures are not meant to be hoarded securely away from view. They are meant to be shared, to let the public can enjoy their shared heritage, and to pique the interest of the next generation of readers, historians, explorers, archaeologists and conservators. As David Moore said,

“We will be finding answers to questions for the next twenty to twenty-five years. Because so much of the material has either not been recovered yet, or what has been recovered, the vast majority of that is still locked up in concretion. And so that’s just going to take a lot of time to process. So there will be answers to questions we haven’t even thought of, that we haven’t even asked yet.”  As questions and answers continue to fly we slip closer to a more robust understanding of the past, of its attitudes and ways of life - and therefore a better understanding of ourselves and the world we live in today.

IMG_3610.jpg

The QAR Project Lab offers free tours at 10:00 and 2:00 the first Tuesday of every month. Call Lab Manager Courtney Page (252-744-6721) to register for a tour. For more information visit qaronline.org. For more on the Queen Anne’s Revenge exhibit, visit ncmaritimemuseumbeaufort.com

This project was a dream come true for this history major. I wrote about Blackbeard when I was thirteen, and the allure of pirates and all their legends has lasted for me. Getting to learn from experts about the true grit in unearthing the truth was something left me pinching myself after every interview. A special shoutout to Amanda, the rockstar of an editor in charge of Carolina Shore for trusting me to cover this, despite every writer and their mother on the coast wanting a blurb about Blackbeard.