Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Short-lived Ship Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997
by Jessica E. Saraceni

[image]Workers uncover remains of an eighteenth-century ship in the Elizabeth River. (© Tony Belcastro) [LARGER IMAGE]

Remains of a late eighteenth-century vessel have been found at the construction site of a new ferry slip on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Virginia. Work crews discovered the ship while clearing old wooden pilings and other seaport debris 20 feet below the present land surface. A heavy equipment operator from Tidewater Construction Company halted the work when he realized that he had cut through part of a ship's hull. Randal Turner, Virginia's state historic preservation officer, says the vessel was about 100 feet long. Its construction features suggest it was built between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; a late eighteenth-century bottle and mid-eighteenth-century lead-glazed earthenware support this date. "Not many ships from this period have survived," says Turner, who adds that what is left of the ship is well preserved. Lack of fasteners in the hull, which is constructed of native Virginian soft pine, suggests that the vessel may not have been complete at the time it was lost. Turner adds that the vessel may be one of 100 ships reportedly scuttled in the Elizabeth River to prevent their capture by the British during the Revolutionary War.

[image]CAD drawing shows a plan of the wreck site; there is little left of the hull. (Institute for International Maritime Research, Inc.) [LARGER IMAGE]

According to Gordon Watts of East Carolina University and the Institute for International Maritime Research, the ship's materials and design suggest it was built for a specific, limited purpose such as trading in the West Indies or privateering. "Virtually no oak was found in the small sections of the ship that remain," says Watts. "Clearly good shipwrights built the vessel, but they were not concerned with its longevity. They must have had a plan to recoup their expenses quickly. We know from the shape of the hull that this was a fast ship that could have made trips to the West Indies to pick up goods when trade was disrupted by the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812." Because of the continuing construction of the ferry slip, Watts took the remains of the vessel to his laboratory for analysis and computer modeling.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America