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Planet Earth

The Year in Science: Archeology 1997

Blackbeard's Ship

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In November 1717, Edward Teach, best known as Blackbeard, took command of a French merchant vessel that he and his shipmates had captured. He renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge and added 20 guns, bringing her total to 40 and making her one of the most formidable pirate ships ever to sail the Spanish Main. At her helm, Blackbeard plundered at least 18 ships in seven months, 8 or 9 of them during a notorious weeklong blockade of Charleston. In June 1718, days after the blockade ended, Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground at Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Blackbeard escaped with the loot.

That hasn’t stopped archeologists from looking for his ship, though, and this past year one group announced they were 90 percent sure they’d found it. Intersal Inc., a Florida-based marine research and recovery firm, used a magnetometer to scan the seafloor in Beaufort Inlet for anomalies caused by iron or steel. On November 21, 1996, the surveyors spotted something in 20 feet of water. The next day, the 278th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death (just five months after his escape, he was hunted down and decapitated by the British Navy, and his head was fixed to a bowsprit), underwater archeologist Richard Lawrence of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History dove down and had a look. There were anchors and cannons just sitting in a big pile at the bottom, he says.

In a series of dives in 1997, Lawrence and his colleagues salvaged a few artifacts, including the barrel of a blunderbuss—the eighteenth-century pirate’s equivalent of a sawed-off shotgun. A bronze bell bearing the date 1709 assured them that they were in the right time period, and a 24-pound cannonball that they had the right sort of ship: only a large one—the Queen Anne’s Revenge was 103 feet long, had three masts, and carried 150 pirates—could handle guns that big. How much of the ship itself remains is still in doubt. Lawrence thinks he spotted a couple of the ships’ ribs, but we really need to follow them out to see if the bottom hull is still intact, he says. My guess is that we will find a good bit of it still there.

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