A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Move over, Johnny Depp. It's time for evidence of real pirates to be unearthed.
Aye, pirates, they be everywhere.
And that's nothing new. Images of pirates have pervaded pop culture for more than a century, from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island to the swashbuckling movies of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Today, pirates are more popular than ever, the resurgence of interest in them largely spurred by the 2003 blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, itself inspired by a Disney World ride. Fashionable men and women can sport a variety of skull-and-bones-adorned clothes and accessories, and college students celebrate "National Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day" every September 19, irritating countless professors with exclamations of "Avast, matey!" and "Yarr, shiver me timbers!" Schoolchildren can watch the film Muppet Treasure Island or the pirate-tinged cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, and adults can enjoy Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum, in bottles adorned with the image of the famous pirate himself.
Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel
While piracy stretches back thousands of years, the pirates that have captured the public imagination are those of the "Golden Age" of piracy, which maritime historian David Cordingly, in his Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, places as roughly the 1650s to 1725. The tenets of Golden Age pirate lore, largely created by Treasure Island and elaborated in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, are familiar to all: the peg legs, the eye patches, the pet parrots who squawked "Pieces of eight!" After plundering ships, murdering resisters, and burying their loot in the sand, pirates drank rum, sang merrily, and napped in hammocks in the sun. Quasi-Robin Hoods, they were free-spirited adventurers who embraced an egalitarian life at sea and a chance to get back at the colonial elite.
The reality of piracy differs sharply from the romanticized version. Contemporary documents abound that attest the cruelty of real pirates and the fear they inspired among their unfortunate victims, but until recently archaeological knowledge concerning pirates was virtually non-existent.
The start of a new field of archaeology?
Over the past three decades, however, a handful of archaeologists have begun to study the material remains left by these infamous seamen. In the process, they hope to uncover the details of daily life as a pirate on board a ship or at a pirate hideout, beyond our documentary knowledge of their sensational exploits. The recently released X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, edited by archaeologists Russell K. Skowronek of Santa Clara University and Charles R. Ewen of East Carolina University, is the first comprehensive, scholarly look at the artifactual evidence of real pirates, recovered at both shipwrecks and known pirate bases. This evidence can give insight into both the behavior of pirates and the behavior of those they encountered and interacted with, and thus adds to existing knowledge of the role they played in the colonial world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Fast Ships and Easy Targets
The Golden Age of piracy was an era when trade between the colonial powers of Europe and the New World and India flourished. European monarchs competed fiercely for colonial lands and the goods culled from them, and access to Asian trading centers. Pirates preyed on the large merchant vessels that carried luxury goods, and sometimes jewels and precious metals, between trade centers.
Bartholomew Roberts, from A General History of the Pyrates. He is quoted as saying "A merry life and a short one, shall be my motto."
At a time when poor men often turned to sailing on merchant ships as their best opportunity for employment--or were pressed into naval service, as often happened in England--piracy presented an alternative to a common sailor's existence. Sailors not only had to face the danger of sea travel and the threat of diseases like scurvy, but also received meager wages and were subject to the absolute authority of upper-class captains and ships' owners. In Under the Black Flag, Cordingly relates dozens of first-hand accounts of the cruelty of merchant ship officers, including brutal beatings and whippings followed by splashing brine on the wounds. At the trial of the crew of pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts in 1722, crew member John Philps accused one of his former masters on a merchant ship of starving the men, saying that "it was such dogs as he that put men on pyrating."
Even though piracy carried the risk of execution if caught, the chance to make more money in looted treasure and live in a less authoritarian environment seemed attractive to many sailors. Additionally, the islands of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean provided myriad natural harbors and defensible enclaves where pirates could hide from the law and enjoy their ill-gotten gains.
Captain Kidd's 1695 privateering commission
Piracy in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean was not always identifiable as such even at the time. Privateers--captains licensed by governments to seize an enemy nation's ships and their cargos--were seen as law-abiding sailors by their home country, but were viewed as pirates by rival nations, and they often blurred the line between the two by launching unauthorized attacks in addition to sanctioned ones. Famed pirate captains William Kidd and Henry Morgan both began their careers as English privateers, and both were accused of piracy by their home country after attacking a ship and a colonial city, respectively, belonging to allies. While Kidd was disgraced and hanged, Morgan was eventually knighted and appointed lieutenant governor of Jamaica, charged with hunting down the colony's pirates.
Trouble at Sea
The primary obstacle confronting archaeologists searching for evidence of pirates lies within the very phenomenon of piracy. Pirates were defined by the act of piracy, which itself does not survive in the material record. However, their behavior is reflected in the spoils of their crimes, the tools they used to commit piracy, and the measures others took to protect themselves from pirates. Beyond simply confirming documentary accounts of pirate exploits, archaeologists can investigate pirate ships and the port towns of the Caribbean and Indian Ocean for the evidence of pirate behavior. It seems logical that, as a ship was a pirate's home and essential tool in committing piracy, it should be the place to start in looking for evidence of pirate activities.
The first challenge of locating pirate shipwrecks is that they are typically undistinguishable from the wrecks of other contemporary ships, such as armed merchant vessels, men-of-war, and slave ships. In fact, pirate ships were almost always originally one of these other kinds of vessels, acquired by pirates through attack or mutiny. Documentary evidence shows that pirates often modified their ill-gotten ships to make them faster and more fit for combat. Cordingly explains that pirate captains Roberts, Basil Ringrose, and George Lowther are known to have removed the internal walls of their ships' cabins, freeing more space to man the guns, and removed the forecastle and lowered the quarter deck, turning the deck into a flat, unobstructed fighting platform. However, these indicative modifications and human activity on board were generally concentrated above the waterline. When ships were burned, wrecked, or began to rot away, these modified areas were the first to disappear.
Analyzing artifacts found at wreck sites would seem like the next logical step in tracing pirate behavior. Yet pirate captains abandoning their old ships often burned them at sea to hide evidence of their illegal activities. Before leaving the ship, a pirate crew would naturally try to take whatever valuables they could from it. Even if their vessel sank in a storm or in battle, pirates would grab whatever loot they could before abandoning ship. Locals would often attempt to salvage whatever goods the pirates hadn't taken with them. Since pirates usually preyed on merchant ships carrying expensive luxury goods, any stolen loot left on board would likely be porcelain, cloth or spices, not gold dubloons or silver pieces of eight. Other items left behind were often objects typical of any ship of the day: navigational instruments, tools, and a smattering of coins and quotidian items. So much for a cache of cursed Aztec gold.
With all of these challenges, is there any way for archaeologists to distinguish a pirate ship? Historical documentation is crucial to establishing the very baseline for archaeological study. If a ship dated to a certain time period and of a certain size is located at the site where, historically, a pirate ship was known to have sank, archaeologists have reason for hope. Surviving cannons can be counted and compared with historical descriptions. Beyond that, the common objects left behind, such as coins and dishes, can be dated and traced to a country of origin, which can be compared with the dates the ship was in use and the origin of the cargo its crew stole from other ships. This circumstantial evidence is virtually the only way to build a strong case for the positive identification of a pirate ship.
Skowronek believes that any cargo left on board, if recovered, can point archaeologists in the right direction in terms of identifying a pirate ship. He believes that a variety of types of cargo could be indicative of a pirate, rather than merchant, ship: "On a pirate ship, you were going to have wanted to have it heavily armed, have food and water, and of course, things you've taken from people. And it's going to be very difficult to pick out what those things were, unless it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that and no genuine cargo; cargo where you'd have lots of a single item. That's what I'd look for: small, shallow, fast vessels, probably over-armed for their size, and no evidence of a single cargo."
As more of these identifications are made and their artifacts are examined and compared, archaeologists may recognize a distinctly piratical pattern of material remains. This pattern will be essential for alleviating archaeologists' reliance on the historical record; they will be able to identify sites of piratical activity from excavation alone and establish a line of evidence about pirates independent of written sources. So far, only four shipwrecks connected to pirates of the Golden Age have been excavated--Speaker, Whydah, Fiery Dragon, and Queen Anne's Revenge--but a few similarities in material remains, particularly weapons, have already been detected among them.
The site map of the wreck of Speaker (Courtesy of X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006.)
A Speaker from the Depths
The first pirate shipwreck to be excavated archaeologically was Captain John Bowen's Speaker, which sank off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean in 1702 in a violent squall. Bowen's crew reached the island safely in Speaker's longboats, but the ship itself was not so lucky. None of the timber structure of the boat survives today; all that is left is a debris-field covering some 5,000 square meters of reef, with the durable artifacts encased in coral. Led to the location by documentary sources, a UNESCO-backed French team, led by nautical historian Patrick Lizé, excavated the site in 1980. They found navigational instruments, beads, gold ingots, clay pipes, cannons, and ammunition. They also discovered hand grenades made out of hollow cannonballs filled with black powder (similar grenades were later found on the wreck site of Whydah). Still, it was the written record attesting the date and location of the ship when it sank that was the primary evidence in identifying Speaker. Fortunately, there were no other ships known to have sunk in the same area at the same time as Bowen's ship. Otherwise, Lizé concedes, "nothing discovered on this wreck site would have told researchers that it was the remains of a pirate ship."
Barry Clifford, in Search of Booty
In the case of Whydah, the ship of "Black" Sam Bellamy that sank off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, en route from the Caribbean in 1717, there was definitive material evidence attesting the ship's identity. However, it was an unorthodox historical record that initially established the vessel's final resting place. Eighteenth-century maps, and a sign on a local beach pointing to the wreck's probable location, led treasure hunter Barry Clifford and his salvage company, Maritime Explorations, Inc., to the site of Whydah in 1983. Initially, Clifford failed to take into account centuries of beach erosion when pinpointing the location of the wreck. He identified an iron rod as he ship's mizzen stay, but it turned out to be from Gugielmo Marconi's 1901 radio station. Yet artifacts were soon being recovered, including a ship's bell emblazoned with the name Whydah. Other objects brought up from Whydah include silver coins, navigational instruments, metal clothing adornments, pewter tableware, and cannons. All of the cannons were found loaded, some with musket balls and birdshot, which would have injured or killed enemies without seriously damaging their ships. This would have been essential for pirates looking to capture both vessels and cargo.
The silk ribbon recovered from Whydah (Courtesy of X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006.)
One of the most intriguing finds is a French-made pistol with a silk ribbon wrapped around its handle. According to a firsthand account from the compiled The Pirates' Own Book, Bartholomew Roberts once appeared in battle wearing "two pair of pistols hanging at the end of a silk sling flung over his shoulders, according to the custom of the pirates." Clifford didn't find a huge cache of gold and jewels to sell, but he did find artifacts that corroborated historical documentation. Even though Whydah proved not to be Clifford's personal treasure chest, he generated publicity, and recouped at least some of his investors' money by selling books about the find and opening a museum to display these archaeologically significant finds to the public.
Clifford espoused the romantic myth of pirates, most likely as a tool for drawing attention to his project. Among the things he told reporters about pirate history is that pirate ships were egalitarian states. However, an intriguing find from Whydah suggests differently. In examining the metal remains on the wreck site, apparel accessories such as cufflinks, buttons, and buckles made of silver were concentrated close to the stern, where the ship's captain, first mate, and other officers would have resided. In contrast, the same items made of less expensive brass and pewter were located towards the center of the ship, where the crew would have been. This segregated distribution of high status items suggests a degree of hierarchical authority.
In early 2000, Clifford again launched an expedition in search of a pirate ship, this time Adventure Galley, the one-time flagship of Captain William Kidd. While legend has painted him as one of the most notorious pirates of the Golden Age, Kidd had a short and lackluster career. He was originally employed as an English privateer, but his first privateering voyage was unsuccessful; he was reluctant to confront enemy French ships and consequently seized none. Out of fear that his restless crew would mutiny, he attacked and took Queddah Merchant, an Indian trading ship under an English captain. This amounted to an act of piracy, and in fact Queddah Merchant was the only prize he took as a pirate. In 1698, during a stop on the notorious pirate haunt of St. Mary's Island, near Madagascar, Kidd decided to burn the leaky, rotting Adventure Galley in the harbor and transfer operations to his recently captured prize ship.
In his novelized account of the project, Return to Treasure Island and the Search for Captain Kidd, Clifford recounts that "with a reasonably accurate location in mind, I felt confident that [I] could find the ship." Historical records in hand, he hooked the Discovery Channel into filming the expedition for a TV special. He assembled a team of divers, underwater imaging specialists, and historian and archaeologist John De Bry, who received a salary from both Clifford and the Discovery Channel. After Clifford located the wreck site in the harbor, De Bry conducted an initial survey, during which he determined that the wreck was not, in fact, Adventure Galley. De Bry was convinced that the remains belonged to Fiery Dragon, the ship of the less famous, but far more successful English pirate, Christopher Condent.
Condent committed some of the largest robberies at sea ever recorded, including stealing the cargo of an Turkish-owned ship sailing from India to Saudi Arabia and estimated to be worth $375 million today. In 1721, after burning Fiery Dragon in the harbor of St. Mary's, he secured a pardon for himself from the colonial governor of Reunion Island, married the governor's sister-in-law, and lived out his days as a respectable gentleman in Brittany. While contemporary accounts indicated that both ships sunk in the same area of the island's natural harbor, the framing pattern of the wreck reflected Dutch, rather than English construction, suggesting that it was the Dutch-built Fiery Dragon. Numerous sherds of Chinese export porcelain and coins found at the wreckage site were dated to the early 1700s, years after Kidd's ship was destroyed, but consistent with the time of Condent's exploits.
John De Bry with gold coins from Fiery Dragon (Courtesy of X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006.)
As De Bry reports in X Marks the Spot, "there was some reluctance on everyone's part in accepting such a theory." Clifford was no doubt betting on huge publicity from Kidd's name, and perhaps troves of gold as well, even though the one ship Kidd captured carried spices and opium, not treasure. In Return to Treasure Island, Clifford asserts that though the wreck he selected turned out to be Condent's, another one close by must certainly be Kidd's. Though time and other factors kept Clifford from investigating the other wreck properly, team diver Bob Paine did removed a pewter tankard from amongst the ballast stones, which the crew excitedly identified as "Captain Kidd's beer mug" and then used to share a round of rum. In the last chapter of Return to Treasure Island, Clifford recounts that De Bry toasted "To the brotherhood of the pirates!" and then "drained the tankard, sediment and all, and set it down in the middle of the table. For a brief moment, Captain Kidd had joined us at the table."
The Fiery Dragon wreck produced valuable evidence of Condent's thefts from the Indian ship, including nutmeg and apricot pits, Pacific cowrie shells, and Chinese and Islamic earthenware, as well as the Chinese porcelain. Numerous contributors to X Marks the Spot suggest that a variety of exotic goods like these, including goods from a variety of nations, may be indicative of the raiding activities of pirates. While it may not have been a boon for the notorious treasure hunter, Fiery Dragon did yield artifacts that may aid archaeologists in defining a pattern of pirate material culture.
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, from A General History of the Pyrates
Chasing After Blackbeard
In 1996, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources granted a permit to the privately funded shipwreck exploration firm Intersal, Inc., to excavate a site in Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Intersal's project director, Mike Daniel, believed that the site was the final resting place of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach's ship Queen Anne's Revenge. In one of the most brazen acts of piracy of the entire era, Blackbeard blocked the port of Charleston, South Carolina, for five days in May of 1718 and took hostages from ships attempting to enter the harbor, demanding medical supplies as ransom. But after sailing into Beaufort Inlet to avoid capture, his flagship ran aground on a sandbar and sank.
According to Intersal's website, the company's research indicated that before Queen Anne's Revenge sank, the pirates had sufficient time to unload valuables from the ship. Consequently, since a full-scale excavation was estimated to cost $5 million and there was little chance of recovering items of intrinsic value from the wreck, Intersal handed over control of the site to the state's division of underwater archaeology in 1998. However, they retained film and merchandising rights to the ship, attesting their faith in the marketing value of a famous pirate like Blackbeard.
Site map of the wreck of Queen Anne's Revenge (Courtesy of X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006.)
The ongoing state-sponsored excavation has uncovered cannons, cannonballs, ceramics, pewter dishes, two intact glass wine bottles, navigational instruments, clay pipe fragments, and a large quantity of iron hoops from wooden storage barrels. Intersal, meanwhile, sells bottles of "Blackbeard's Golden Sand," sand recovered from the wreck site, for $19.95.
While some archaeologists express doubt over the identification of the wreck as Queen Anne's Revenge, circumstantial evidence points to Blackbeard's ship. According to project director Mark U. Wilde-Ramsing of East Carolina University, "the wreck's 15 cannons clearly exceeded what was reported on any shipwreck candidate known to have been lost in Beaufort Inlet during the eighteenth century other than the pirate flagship." The ceramics, pewter, and bottle fragments were dated to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and were similar in kind to the artifact assemblage found on Whydah, a possible sign of a similar, piratical, lifestyle on board. Three anchors located on the wreck site were all of the size rated for a vessel of between 250 and 350 tons, appropriate for the 300-ton Queen Anne's Revenge and too large for any other ship known to have sunk in the inlet.
State archaeologist John Clauser with a pewter dish recovered from Queen Anne's Revenge
Archaeologists are still searching for the smoking gun piece of evidence: the valuable medical chest known to have been on board. It is likely that the pirates carried it off the sinking boat, but some implements may have been left behind. So far, a brass apothecary nesting weight and a medicine bottleneck fragment with cork still in place have been found. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing find of the excavation is a French pewter urethral syringe, which would have been used to administer mercury, a common treatment for venereal disease.
The wreck has also yielded a few tantalizing pieces of evidence that may be distinctly piratical. Like Whydah's cannons, its were all loaded, a sign of preparedness for battle. Ewen believes other types of vessels "didn't do that on a regular basis." The cannons were loaded with a mixture of lead shot, glass, nails, and large iron bolts, and a "bag shot" grenade, filled with a similar mix of shrapnel and shot intended to be lit and thrown, was also recovered. These projectiles would have disabled the rigging of an enemy ship and injured or killed its crew without causing serious damage to the vessel, which was ideal for pirates looking to capture, not destroy, other ships. Moreover, the use of this motley collection of items as ammunition was suggested by documentary sources. William Defoe, who recorded factual--though somewhat exaggerated--accounts of pirate exploits in his A General History of the Pyrates in 1724, described Blackbeard's final battle, against the British naval lieutenant Robert Maynard: "the Pyrate fired a Broadside, charged with all Manner of small Shot.-A fatal stroke to them! The Sloop the Lieutenant was in, having twenty Men killed and wounded."
Besides the loaded cannons and bag shot, Ewen believes there is other evidence from Queen Anne's Revenge that might be part of pattern of pirate remains. The cannonballs found on board were of varying sizes, indicating cannons of a variety of sizes and dates. According to him, a pirate ship would be "bristling with cannons...and [pirates were] getting the cannons from different places, wherever they can get them, unlike a naval vessel, which [would be] fitted out in a port and most of their ordinance would match." Confirming this aspect of the potential pattern will require comparing pirate wrecks to contemporary non-pirate wrecks, a task that has not yet been attempted on a large scale by archaeologists.
A diver explores the sunken features of Port Royal during one of Texas A&M's excavations. (Courtesy of Donny L. Hamilton and the Port Royal Project)
A Pirate's Life for Me?
According to the pirate legend, after months at sea, pillaging and singing sea chanties, the marauders had to stop in at a pirate-friendly settlement to unload their looted cargo, load up on supplies, and visit the local taverns and brothels. It makes sense, then, that known pirate haunts should be the subjects of archaeological investigations into the material evidence of piracy. Documented Golden Age pirate ports-of-call, including Port Royal, Jamaica--the setting for the Pirates of the Caribbean film--and the settlements of the Spanish Caribbean have been sites of recent excavations. As is the case with pirate wrecks, material evidence is often not enough to connect these places with pirates; the historical record is still crucial. Some of the items recovered from these pirate stomping grounds provide a glimpse into the lives of these outlaws.
In 1692, when an earthquake sank 33 acres of the English colonial city of Port Royal into the harbor, it was known as "the wickedest city in the world." Between 1981 and 1991, a crew from Texas A & M University conducted an excavation on the sunken portion of the city. Project archaeologist Donny L. Hamilton believes that the numerous shipwrecks in the former harbor area are the "main archaeological evidence that can be unequivocally equated to piracy and privateering." The presence of so many ships, including one identified by eighteenth-century maps as pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts' Ranger, are a testament to a flourishing trade and the acceptance of piracy by the city's people and government. Pirates supplied looted luxury goods to Port Royal's "legitimate" merchants, who sold them to colonists. The colonists seemed eager to acquire these items, even if they had been looted. The vast array of artifacts from the site includes crystal glass, silver tableware, and Italian slipware. Yet luxury goods and ships alone are not enough to indicate piracy. As with all investigations into the material remains of pirate activity, the documentary record is essential. "Without the written wills, inventories, deeds and grantor's records that often record partial ownership of vessels used in privateering or trade, there would be little to equate Port Royal with its [pirate and] privateering citizenry," says Hamilton.
A seventeenth-century English tin-glazed earthenware flower vase, recovered from the Port Royal site (Courtesy of Donny L. Hamilton and the Port Royal Project)
Ewen and Skowronek took a different approach to pirate archaeology in examining Spanish Caribbean settlements of this time: they looked at what potential victims of piracy were doing to protect themselves. The colonies of wealthy Spain were prime targets for pirates; when English privateer Sir Francis Drake captured a Spanish mule convoy near Nombre de Dios, Panama in 1573, he took so much silver he couldn't take it all back to England with him. Attacks such as this one, which earned Drake the nickname of "El Dragón," drove colonists to take bold measures to protect themselves and Spain's power in the Caribbean. Skowronek and Ewen's archaeological excavations have revealed that beginning in the sixteenth century, the Spanish expanded and strengthened their fortifications in Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba, Mexico, Honduras, Panama, and Florida. Most of these edifices guarded harbors and their accompanying communities. To the archaeologists, this indicates that the Spanish feared attacks from sea from the growing number of pirates trolling Caribbean waters at this time. As Ewen points out, "For a lot of the time [in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries], Spain wasn't necessarily at war with France or England...but they always had those harbor defenses up, and it's because they were targets. They were the people with the money in the Caribbean, and these pirates were the people who were preying on them." Fortifying ports was an expensive proposition, one the Spanish wouldn't have undertaken unless there was a serious threat to these trading centers.
Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro in Havana, Cuba, raised between 1589 and 1630 (Courtesy of X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006.)
On the Trail of Treasure
Pirate archaeology, it is clear, is a growing field, with plenty of sites still to be excavated. Numerous questions remain about the lives of Golden Age pirates: what were their daily lives like onboard ships? Were their lives really easier than naval or merchant sailors? What roles did pirates play in colonial commerce networks? How did others respond to the threat of piracy? Why were they accepted in certain places, like Port Royal, but not others, like the Spanish port communities? Until now archaeologists have relied on documentary sources to answer these questions. But once a pattern of pirate material evidence is developed, archaeologists can identify sites of pirate activity and study them so they can go beyond merely corroborating the historical record.
For Skowronek, studying the activities of Golden Age pirates and their victims may also provide insight into the modern day problem of piracy. He explains that besides "having some interesting information for us to understand the economics of the birth of the modern global system, [we can also see] how it was responded to in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and use that to try to understand how we are responding to it today. We'll probably find that our responses to piracy today are probably no different than they were 200 years ago."
In addition, pirate archaeology is an area that captures the minds of the general public. The mere mention of the word "pirate" in conjunction with an excavation will elicit excitement from millions of people, not to mention funding. So why are there so few scholars investigating the material remains of Golden Age piracy?
In X Marks the Spot, Skowronek and Ewen suggest that the popular image of pirates is the primary reason it has been ignored by scholars for so long. "Is the hunt for treasure, and by association pirate sites, too popular to interest the professional archaeologist?" they ask. The editors suggest that by working on sites associated with pirates, professional archaeologists run the risk of being seen by their peers as selling out or pursuing sensational finds to gain the attention of the popular press. Pirates just seem too "un-academic" for the scholarly archeologist, and since media attention doesn't equal tenure or promotion, there is little incentive for academic archaeologists to tackle this area. In the preface, the editors acknowledge that "it would seem that even the serious pirate scholar cannot completely rise above popular culture." Ewen notes in the introduction that he named one of the sections of the book "Pirate Lairs" because he couldn't pass up his one chance to use the word "lair" in an academic work.
Castillo de San Marcos in Augustine, Florida, built between 1672 and 1695 (Courtesy of X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006.)
Skowronek and Ewen suggest that there may also be a more serious reason why archaeologists have shied away from investigating pirate sites. Old pirate wrecks attract modern treasure hunters, who typically have little regard for archaeological excavation and artifact disposition methods. Collaborating with treasure hunters who are looking for profits from the sale of unearthed goods puts archaeologists in an ethical quandary.
Barry Clifford's excavation of the Whydah in the 1980s had a notoriously high turnover of project archeologists. According to Stephen Kiesling's exposé of the project, Walking the Plank: A True Adventure Among Pirates, the archaeologists were allegedly uncomfortable with the massive investments and publicity Clifford was directing toward the site and the recovery methods of the site divers. Kiesling says that Clifford and his crew, among other things, concealed the true number of test pits dug at the site from the media and investors to make it appear that a large number of spectacular finds came from one small area, thus prompting the flow of investment money to "excavate" more test pits.
Artifacts recovered from Queen Anne's Revenge, including a brass gun sideplate, cast iron hand grenades, and a pewter syringe. (Courtesy Queen Anne's Revenge Excavation)
However, as Skowronek notes, even if a site is initially located by treasure hunters, as was the case with Whydah and Queen Anne's Revenge, archaeologists can still use data from those sites for purposes other than profit. "You always run into the issue of treasure salvers, there's no two ways about it. I certainly don't support treasure hunting," he says, but he points out that "The collections of Whydah [in the Whydah Museum in Massachusetts] have never been broken up, and researchers have access to them. Do we turn our backs on that information if it's out there?" In the case of both Whydah and Queen Anne's Revenge, archaeologists have been able to document and preserve artifacts that may have otherwise been sold.
Archaeologists drawn to pirate sites seek to answer questions about the lives of pirates and their place in the overall picture of colonial life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beyond just their sensational attacks. Treasure hunters, seeking to make a profit through publicity and sale of recovered goods, do not utilize the painstaking excavation methods of trained archaeologists, and do not understand, or choose to ignore, the consequences of disturbing a site in a reckless manner. Removing items of intrinsic value, such as gold coins, from these sites alters the total artifact assemblage and destroys the context of the site. This diminishes the ability of archaeologists to piece together a pattern of pirate material culture and make new insights into pirate behavior.
Looking to the Horizon
Still, if X Marks the Spot and its contributors are any indication, more and more archaeologists are realizing that the swashbuckling figure they imitated at Halloween and watched in movies as a child can be an object of serious study. As the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Dead Man's Chest, sets new box office records, and Queen Anne's Revenge continues to attract media attention, it is clear that the public is as interested in the reality of pirate life as it is in the fiction. Despite the challenges, archaeologists who endeavor to investigate possible pirate wrecks and pirate hideouts will likely find themselves in high demand for years to come.
As archaeology continues to add to our knowledge of Golden Age pirates, is it possible that the romanticized pirate will be surpassed by his realistic counterpart in the public consciousness? Probably not. However, it is possible that while the stylized image of pirates will continue to be popular, more and more people will also learn of the discrepancies between the reality and the fiction. The Caribbean or Indian Ocean pirate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may bear little resemblance to Jack Sparrow, but he was no less fascinating for it.
Sarah Pickman, an intern at ARCHAEOLOGY, is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago pursuing a major in anthropology and a minor in art history.