A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Nautically minded archaeologists have had plenty to keep them occupied lately. A spate of discoveries have them both rewriting history and busy advising would-be Thor Heyerdahls on how best to replicate our forbears' ocean-going savoir faire.
A French team is excavating the remains of Hermione, the ship that carried the Marquis de Lafayette to the United States in 1780. The vessel sank off the coast of northwest France 13 years later. While archaeologists have been busy recovering Hermione's anchor and rudder, as well as thousands of pieces of ammunition, the Hermione-Lafayette Association has spent the last eight years reconstructing the ship in Rochefort, France. Unfortunately, the archaeological remains do not appear to correspond exactly to the replica, which is due to sail from Rochefort to Boston in 2007.
Those sailing on the rebuilt Hermione's trans-Atlantic voyage will be hoping their passage is not as star crossed as the exceedingly brief trip of another recent replica. Based on Bronze Age shipbuilding techniques, the reed boat Magan set sail from Oman this September bound for India and carrying a cargo of dates, dried fish, pottery, and other items that would have been traded in 2500 B.C. But only a few hours into its maiden voyage, Magan sprung a leak, and its crew of eight had to be rescued by an Omani naval vessel. The Italian-American research team has vowed to attempt the voyage again, perhaps with more complete bitumen sealing, the discovery of which inspired the replica in the first place.
Back in the United States, conservators excavating the turret of USS Monitor have finally given rest to one of the most persistent legends surrounding the famed ironclad's last moments. Writing two decades after the events, former Monitor crewman Francis R. Butts claimed that in the minutes before the ship went down, he stuffed a black cat down the barrel of one of the ship's guns to stifle its yowling while the crew tried to bail ship. Now that researchers have sifted the contents of both of Monitor's guns, they can give comfort to cat lovers everywhere with the news that Butts fabricated the story.
In Asia, excavations have revealed two important vessels. A 60-foot warship dating to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) has been found at the site of Dengzhou Harbor on China's central coast. It is only the second vessel from the period to be excavated. Korean archaeologists have discovered what they say is the world's oldest boat in the southeast of the country. About 10 feet long, the boat is probably more than 8,000 years old.