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Summer of Wrecks Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002
by Eric A. Powell


A sonar image shows the long-sought wreck of the passenger steamship Portland, which went down off the coast of Massachusetts in 1898. (NOAA) [LARGER IMAGE]

It's been a busy field season underwater. A number of discoveries and projects, most spectacularly the raising of the turret from the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, have given nautical archaeologists plenty to ponder.

Off the coast of Massachusetts, a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used sonar and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to locate the wreck of the Portland, a passenger steamship lost during a gale off the coast of Massachusetts in 1898. "The sonar showed the ship sitting upright on the ocean floor. You can even see the two smokestacks," says Benjamin D. Cowie-Haskell, who led the NOAA team. "We're 100 percent sure we have the Portland."

The loss of the Portland, with all 190 passengers and crew, was front page news across the country and brought an end to the use of paddle steamships for oceangoing travel. Future research at the site will focus on determining exactly why the ship sank.

Meanwhile, on the final day of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory's (HURL) submersible training, researchers came across the remains of a Japanese midget submarine sunk by the destroyer USS Ward in the hours before Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. "We've been looking for this midget sub during our training dives for ten years now," says HURL director John Wiltshire. "It was sunk by the first American shots fired in the Second World War, so it's a significant wreck. And for being shelled and depth-charged it's in remarkably good shape.

"The Japanese would be very interested in repatriation of the crew's remains," notes Wiltshire, "especially since these men were the first casualties of the war." He says that plans are afoot to raise the submarine, though its resting place at 1,200 feet below sea level presents significant logistical challenges.

Many of the same hurdles faced a team of NOAA specialists working 20 miles off the coast of North Carolina, where the USS Monitor has rested at 240 feet below sea level since it sank while being towed into harbor in 1862. Data showing accelerated deterioration of the wreck led a group headed by John Broadwater, marine archaeologist and superintendent of the Monitor Marine Sanctuary, to conclude that the Monitor's famous turret should be raised. "A lot of people have asked us why raise it now, when it's been there so long," says Broadwater, "but going over the data, we knew it was time for us to make big decisions. We were faced with losing what makes the Monitor the Monitor--the revolving gun turret, the cannons, and the steam engine."

[image]Archaeologists excavating the turret of the USS Monitor found a gold ring still on the finger of a sailor's skeleton. (Courtesy of The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA) [LARGER IMAGE]

When Navy divers began to excavate the turret in the early summer they soon encountered human bones. "We had figured that there might be human remains in the turret," says Broadwater. "The rest of the ship was battened down and the only way out was through the top of the turret." A forensic archaeologist from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory, which is charged with identification of U.S. military personnel (see "A Long Road Home," this issue), was on hand to supervise recovery of the skeletons. Sixteen seamen are known to have been lost on the Monitor.

In an impressive display of engineering, the turret was successfully raised and transported to shore by a Navy barge, no mean feat considering that with its cannons still inside, the turret weighed 150 tons. The Monitor's turret is now being stored in a tank of chilled water at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, where further research and conservation is expected to last up to 15 years.

On the other side of the Atlantic, construction workers building an arts center in Newport, Wales, uncovered a medieval trading ship dating to A.D. 1465. The Newport City Council, which owns the site, planned to continue construction after a quick study of the vessel, the only armed merchantman known from this period. But the ship's cause was taken up by the hastily formed Friends of the Newport Ship. A campaign to halt construction until the ship could be adequately studied and conserved garnered strong support not only from archaeologists and historians, but from concerned history buffs across Britain and the world, including actor Anthony Hopkins. The outcry led the Welsh National Assembly to step in and fund the ship's full recovery and conservation.

On the same side of the Atlantic, marine archaeologists from St. Andrews University reported that a mill in southern England was built from the timbers of the USS Chesapeake, which was captured by the British in 1813. Inside the mill, the researchers found that the ship's beams still show damage from its last battle, demonstrating that you don't have to dig or even get wet to do nautical archaeology.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America