In 2010 and 2011, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), the US Navy, and Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) conducted archaeology surveys in the Patuxent River on a War of 1812 shipwreck. This blog documents our underwater archaeology surveys.

August 9, 2011

August 6, 2011

Last 48 Hours on War of 1812 Wreck

This is our last day out on the site and we have reached all of the project goals for this season. Here is a list of what we have learned.

Up Stream or Down Stream? 

We used a probing method to find the ends of the wreck and then we opened large trenches on both ends of the site to expose the bow and stern.  The bow is in beautiful condition with decking, intact architectural features, and iron fasteners. The stern consists of jagged timbers and damaged wood that may have been caused by the charge set to scuttle this ship. The bow is pointed upstream and the stern downstream.
Maryland's assistant state underwater archaeologist, Troy Nowak, maps the ship's decking using notes and measurements collected while underwater.

How Big? 

Thirty years ago, a large hole was placed near the stern to recover artifacts from the wreck. These artifacts are on display at the Navy Yard in DC as well as the Calvert Marine Museum. During this early excavation, the team measured the wreck at 48.7 ft. in length by just over 16 ft.  Historical records reported the gun barges were built in both 50 ft. and 75 ft. lengths.

This season's work has revealed the wreck site is 75 ft. long and 20 ft. wide. White PVC pipes were placed around the edges of the wreck and those points were shot in by surveyors. From the surface, it is hard to appreciate the massive size of this war ship, but once below the water you are immediately met by large timbers and perfectly cut and carved wood.  Near the stern, we were even able to sit in the hold that held the crew's personal belongings and provisions. In one location it is possible to reach your hand inside and feel a barrel, still sitting on its shelf.

Time in a Bottle

Although our goal for this year was not to collect artifacts, any disarticulated wood or objects that could be damaged or lost once we left the site were collected for conservation. Perhaps one of the most intriguing artifacts is a handmade aqua pharmaceutical bottle. During the cleaning of the hold area, an archaeologist felt jagged bits of a metal sticking out of the mud, she placed her fingers into the butter-like clay, and found this bottle along with a wide-mouthed stoneware bottle, the latter was left in place. It appeared that these items had fallen out of the crew's shelves and landed in a jumbled heap. The artifacts were mapped underwater and the glass bottle removed for conservation.

Dr. Julie Schablitsky removes the pharmaceutical bottle from a jumbled cache of artifacts. When it was lifted out of the mud, air bubbles trapped from August 22, 1814 were released and traveled up to meet the 21st century.

If you look closely at the bottle, there appears to be adhesive stuck on the exterior that may have once held a label. The bottle was hand made and blown by a glassmaker using a metal pontil rod. The rough mark still remains on the base of the bottle.
Wes Hall is the second person to hold this bottle in his hand since the sinking of the wreck in 1814. Note the possible label adhesive on the exterior of the bottle near his palm.
Other Interesting Finds

Archaeologists were also able to uncover additional personal and domestic items associated with Barney and his crew. We found a pig foot bone, a piece of wood trim with decorative drilled holes, fragments of decking with rose head wrought iron nails, a corn cob, stoneware bottle, and scissors. All of these artifacts will be taken to the laboratory at the US Navy to undergo conservation.
Scissors that may have belonged to the surgeon's kit.
End of the corn cob with hollow end. It may be evidence of being held on a drying rack. 
Corn cob recovered from the hold area. This was likely flint corn, a small, multi-colored grain. The kernels would have been removed and used in meals such as hominy and grits.

Stoneware bottle.  Analysis will soon reveal what it may have held.
Is this Wreck the Scorpion?

Since we found a 75 ft. long wreck, does this mean we have a gun barge and not the Scorpion?  Not necessarily, this still may be Barney's flagship. Being cautious scientists, we still do not yet have enough data to unequivocally determine that this is the sloop of war, the Vigilant (a smaller lookout ship associated with the flotilla), or a sturdy gun barge. But, there is nothing to say that it is not the Scorpion. The full excavation of the site along with artifact analysis will eventually provide this answer.

What's Next?

Today, we are tasked with boating supplies and materials back to the Patuxent River Park. Monday the decking comes off the barge and by Tuesday afternoon our floating office and laboratory will be pushed off of the site and back down river. For the next year, we will be coordinating with environmental professionals and engineers to determine how to limit our impact to the river while building a cofferdam.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be raising one million dollars, most of which will go to the conservation of the artifacts and materials lifted from the wreck during the cofferdam excavation. At this time, the construction and full excavation of the wreck site will likely commence in summer and fall 2013.

August 3, 2011

Answers Coming Quickly

We have four days left on the site, but we have accomplished our main objectives. After exposing both ends of the wreck, we have learned that the bow is pointed up stream and the stern, downstream. This might seem the obvious direction, but when a ship is scuttled one never knows what might happen during the blast. The ship may have been anchored during the explosion and may have turned and sunk--that does not seem to be the case here.

The archaeologists continue to work in three trenches located on the bow, stern, and center.  The trench on the bow is now moving towards the stern in an attempt to better understand the ship and find where the hold may be.  During the excavation of the bow, we uncovered what may be a "cathead" or bumpkin on the port side of the ship. A cathead was a carved wooden beam that jutted out from the bow at a 45 degree angle. This beam would help direct and support the raising and the lowering of the anchor. The term cathead comes from the end of the beam often having a cat or lion head carved onto the end. This piece may also be a bumpkin or other piece of ship rigging.

A piece of ship architecture brought up from bow--the fact that this piece still survives is a great indicator of the ship's preservation.
Dr. Bob Neyland shares his thoughts on this piece of ship architecture lifted from the wreck. Although our goal is not to remove architectural pieces from the ship, any loose or unattached artifacts are recovered and conserved. 

The center unit has come down on solid planking with a round post jutting up. Is this part of a mast or perhaps a post that once mounted a gun?  At this time it is hard to determine, but what we have learned is that the shipwreck is wonderfully preserved and the potential to learn how Barney retrofitted his flotilla for war is great.  Down in the stern area we continue to see disarticulation of timbers and decking. This week we hope to better understand what happened on this end of the wreck as we dig deeper.

July 30, 2011

World Renowned Shark Photographer Films Patuxent Wreck

We spent the day on Friday cleaning and preparing the site for filming by Nick Caloyianis. Nick is use to filming in blue waters, so the murky waters of the Patuxent River provided a real challenge for him. Using state of the art equipment and after taking multiple dives, Nick captured the curve of the ship including decking and iron fittings and fasteners. The film footage will be wrapped into a 30 minute documentary being produced by Maryland Public Television.  This will be the first time the public will see one of the ships scuttled by Commodore Joshua Barney almost 200 years ago.
Nick checks the "dive cam" attached to George's head.

This is not a ROV, but Nick's camera.

Nick prepares to enter the water.
We also had two sets of visitors. Our colleagues from the Maryland Archaeology Conservation Laboratory paid a visit as did Anne Arundel County archaeologists who are excavating an awesome multi-component prehistoric site down at Pig Point.
Nichole, Kate, and Drew pose with underwater archaeologist/conservator George Schwartz.
Dr. Julie Schablitsky gives Anne Arundel County archaeologists a tour from their boat. 

July 29, 2011

Delineating the Wreck and National Park Service Visitors

Yesterday was a busy day on the barge. Although our focus has been the wreck, we also had to ensure that an adjacent magnetic anomaly was not associated with the site. Heading back to the approximate location of the signal, a diver used a handheld magnetometer to find the anomaly and began to dredge. Could it be an anchor? a canon?  Several feet later, we found a buried metal conduit of no historical value whatsoever.
Wes Hall holds a magnetometer used to pinpoint magnetic anomalies.
After solving the mystery of the unknown metal anomaly, we turned our attention back to the War of 1812 vessel. Using the bow as a starting point, archaeologists used a probe to find the starboard and port sides of the ship. White PVC pipes were placed at these points. After all of the white pipes were in, the shape of the ship popped right out of the water; this is an important visual aid for both the archaeologists and our VIP visitors.

This video shows the outline of the wreck with white plastic pipes.

Speaking of visitors, Suzanne Copping, National Park Service (NPS), Program Manager for the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, and Cindy Chance, NPS communications specialist, took a boat tour around the site and hopped on the barge to talk to the divers. The NPS is a significant partner in this endeavor.  New information gleaned from these excavations will be used in their War of 1812 literature, signage, and other media.
Vince, Dr. Langley, and Suzanne Copping from the NPS pose for a photo.
During the dredging activities, we often recover architectural artifacts associated with the wreck. The one artifact that gave us pause, was a very light, but black piece that looked like wood. The lightness and color of the material suggests it may be tar. Tar has been produced here (primarily from the pine stands of Virginia and North Carolina) since the colonial-period. Since it was used for patching and waterproofing, this sticky substance was aboard every wooden sailing vessel in the world. Tar could be applied to all parts of the ship, including the rigging and canons. The piece here retains the wood grain on one side and a smoother dimpled texture on the other. It appears as if the tar solidified in a wooden barrel or box.
Smooth dimpled side.

Wood grain texture captured in tar.

Today will be a busy day on the barge with the arrival of Nick Caloyianis.  Nick is a world renowned underwater videographer who will be diving on the wreck capturing footage for the Maryland Public Television documentary, Search for the USS Scorpion. He regularly films footage for shark documentaries, but today the only thing he needs to worry about is a random river leach.

July 24, 2011

Documenting the Wreck

At the end of the week, we found ourselves on a floating barge working in extreme heat, but at least we were on the water. We have completed the excavation in two of the trenches. The upstream end has been nicely exposed and we are mapping and filming underwater to document the bow.

The downstream trench now has archaeologists measuring and mapping the large beams and decking--it does not appear that we have found the stern, yet. We are also continuing to excavate in the center of the wreck. Archaeologists working in this area are down to the decking. They found a long iron strap with rivets that was lying atop, but not attached to the wreck.
Dr. Robert Neyland prepares a video camera for underwater documentation. The camera is a great addition to a project that has poor water visibility, it picks up much more detail than the human eye.

While mapping the wreck, we are picking up any artifacts that seem to be loose and not in situ.  Around the end of the wreck, we found what appears to be a pig bone. When the site was examined in 1980 by author Don Shomette, large holes were excavated and at some point appear to have been backfilled with modern sediment and debris. Since the sediments have been disturbed, we are not sure if this bone represents mid-20th century garbage or a sailor's ration. We will be forwarding the images of the bone to a faunal analyst for a positive species identification. 
Medium sized mammal bone. 
Another interesting artifact recovered from the bow was a deadeye.  Deadeyes are used for ship's rigging. Our deadeye is a on the smaller side (approximately 5 in. x 10 in.) and is missing the wooden center with three drilled holes. The two holes on top and the one in the center give it this hardware the appearance of a skull...hence the name.
Deadeye found near bow. 
Example of 19th century deadeyes incorporated into ship rigging (courtesy
In addition to artifacts associated with the wreck, we are also coming across coffee cans, beer cans, glass,  etc. On Friday, a leather sole popped up from the end of the wreck.  It measured 11 in. long and was for a man's left foot. It looked old, but it was not from the War of 1812 wreck. Footwear was not regularly made in "lefts" and "rights" until the mid-19th century.
Bottom leather sole from a man's shoe or boot (post-1850).
Monday we will be back out on the site and will continue searching for the stern and the sides of the wreck. We only have two weeks left to find out the size of the shipwreck.

July 20, 2011

Decking, Fasteners, and Timbers

As archaeologists, we are always excited to find artifacts and based on the items removed from the wreck 30 years ago, we will not be dissapointed. The value of the artifacts is not monetary, but in the information they contain and what these personal items can tell us about the sailors who fled the flotilla 200 years earlier.

In shipwreck archaeology, it is not only what's on the inside that counts, but what's on the outside. Although we are diving in "black water" with visibility of only a foot or two, it is still possible to make out where ropes once passed and even see and feel a groove that may be a wash board. Although the upper reaches of the wreck have been partially damaged from exposure above the water line decades earlier, some of the decking was quickly buried in the sediment, preserving a freshly milled color. 

Diver Dan's sketch of the upper end of the wreck.

While diving, Dr. Bob Neyland brought up a few old beer cans, including his favorite, Miss Olde Frothingslosh. This beer was marketed by a Pittsburgh brewer in the 1970s.

Yesterday, SHA District 3 Marlboro Shop helped keep us safe by constructing wooden decking across our barge. The barge we rented came with raised plates, hooks, and other tripping hazzards that made walking dangerous. A big THANK YOU goes out to Carlton and Jim for keeping us safe! 

Carlton takes a measurement for the decking.

Jim cuts notches on the beams to fit around the tripping hazzards and feeds them over to Carlton.

July 18, 2011

Bow or Stern?

Today, we excavated a large amount of sediment from both ends of the wreck.  Within the next day we should expose enough of the exterior of the hull to feel the shape and understand a bit more about the architecture.  The downstream end is full of heavy timbers and may represent the bow....but, we just don't quite have enough exposed to know at this point.  Tomorrow we should know the length of the shipwreck....any guesses?
Another busy day on the barge. Part of the duties of an underwater archaeologist is to keep the pumps running.
During all of the dredging away of the sediment, we often find pieces of garbage in the overburden.  Today we brought up and tossed out a clay pigeon, long glass tube florescent light, coffee can, bottles, and a golf ball. At the end of the day, we found a large jaw bone that may have belonged to a horse. We joked about how Barney had cavalry in his flotilla.  In reality, this bone was found outside, but adjacent to, the upstream part of the wreck--so it may have washed in at anytime during the last 200 years. A faunal analyst will be making the final identification for us.
UPDATE: Dr. Guy Tasa identified the bone as a cow madible, left side. Thanks Guy!
Mandible from a cow (left side).

July 15, 2011

The Smoking Barrel Stave?

Although we did not remove much overburden across the wreck today, we did map in some important points, including the northern end of the wreck site. In addition, we maneuvered the heavy 12 ft. long shoring into place that should cover part of the hold. Since the shoring is so heavy, we used plastic lift bags filled with air to help position the box over the exact spot.
Troy Nowak, Assistant State Archaeologist, discusses placement of shoring with US Navy underwater archaeologists Brad and George.

While exploring the northern part of the wreck we came upon a curious piece of wood.  It was a barrel stave! It measures 22 in. tall, by 4 in. at the center, and is about an inch thick in the center. Was this part of a powder keg that sunk this vessel? Powder kegs did come in this size of barrel during the War of 1812. Of course, the stave may just be the remains of a food or beverage cask.
 Interior of the stave--note the groves on the ends.
Close up view of wooden cask stave. The exterior and interior are colored black. 

July 14, 2011

North End of Wreck Found

After the first week of excavation, we have found the northerly end of the shipwreck.  There seems to be some damage to it, but we are unsure if the damage is from age or from the actual scuttling of the vessel 200 years ago.
Dr. Susan Langley gets help with her equipment from assistant state archaeologist Troy Nowak. 

At the end of the day, diver Dan came up to explain what he felt while dredging away the sediment and exposing the wreckage. The visibility is terrible, and it takes effort to even see your hand in front of your face--visibility is only about a foot.

Now that we have one end of the wreck defined, our goals will be to find the other end and excavate in the center to locate the hold.  Tomorrow our SHA surveyors will be out on the site shooting in one end of the wreck as well as other points marked in the river by our archaeologists. 

July 12, 2011

Amazing Progress

Today it was 95 degrees under our shade canopies--jumping in the water to swim in pea soup water was a welcome relief. Both teams have found the wood of the wreck in their trenches.  The water visibility was very poor due to last night's unexpected thunderstorm, but we still were able to dredge down and feel the shape of the wreck.  Since you can't see the wood, there is a different type of excitement when you feel the ship....your hands take in the shape and smoothness of the architecture. It is a magical experience to think that 200 years ago Joshua Barney ordered his men to scuttle his flotilla, and here it is nestled beneath twigs and sand just waiting to reveal its secrets. Tomorrow we continue on dredging trying to learn more about the size and shape of the site.
Lee Cox and Julie Schablitsky hold on to the ladder to keep from being swept up stream.
Diver probes out wreck to verify their location.

July 11, 2011

Already on the Wreck

Today, there were two teams of archaeologists working on the the bow and stern of the wreck--we are not sure which end is which, but we should find this out by the end of the week. Based on the hydroprobing results, the wreck appears to be at a bit of an angle in the river and is orientated in a northwest to southeast direction.

View of map showing hydroprobe results with the black line delineating the baseline.

The north, or upstream, end of the wreck was reached this afternoon.  A 10 ft. x 6 ft. trench was dredged down on the north end of the wreck to try and delineate the edges and end. We stopped at the clay silt stratum that encases the wreck. During the dredging, a piece of worked pine wood was encountered and immediately placed back in water on the barge for conservation.
Worked, pine wood piece found just on top of the wreck this afternoon. 

While the northern end of the wreck was being delineated, the second team of archaeologists worked to expose the southern end of the wreck. During the dredging of the sandy overburden, an animal bone popped up that looks like a vertebrae from a deer or other medium sized mammal.  Since it was not in direct association with the wreck, it may just be a random bone deposited in the more recent past. 

A medium sized mammal vertebrae recovered from the sandy stratum above the wreck.

Tomorrow, we will be back on the wreck and may even begin screening the thin, silty-clay stratum over the wreck. Make sure to visit MPT's blog on the making of Search for the Scorpion.

The bubbles on the left and then on the right show divers dredging the ends of the wreck.

July 8, 2011

All Hands on Deck

Today the metal shoring to hold back the sediment in our excavation units arrived at the Patuxent River Park.  MNCPPC loaded the shoring onto a flat bed truck and transferred it up river to the Patuxent River Trailer Park and down to the boat ramp where several US Navy divers assembled, attached the shoring to the side of their boat, and moved it to the shallow waters of the river within reach of the site.

Watch a short clip of Navy Divers and others unloading shoring, working on the barge, and filming of the action.

While the Navy was busy moving shoring, the rest of the crew set up and organized the barge, readying it for diving.  Maryland Public Television (MPT) was there to capture the action.  MPT also documented conversations between Susan, Bob, and Julie discussing how to first excavate the wreck. The excavation will begin on the ends of the wreck as well as the center.  Last year we came away with only a curious lead weight---but this year we will encounter artifacts in the hold of the vessel. In addition to the artifacts, we also expect to understand the condition (e.g. did the sides collapse outward) and orientation of the wreck.
 US Navy divers attaching shoring to boat.
 Shoring ready to be assembled.
Dr. Susan Langley talking to Mike English and Tim Pugh.

In addition to organizing shoring and filming, we also tested the pumps to ensure we can start dredging away the sediment first thing tomorrow morning.

July 7, 2011

Phase II of the 2011 Archaeology Project Starts Tomorrow

 After a two week break, we will be back excavating on the wreck tomorrow. It took a few days to mobilize the barge and equipment and float it up the river from Selby's Landing at the Patuxent River Park.  But, we now have a 38 ft. x 18 ft. aluminum barge anchored near the site along with a bright yellow sediment curtain.  Once excavation starts, the overburden will be pumped into the sediment curtain to keep it from going down river. Tomorrow we will be assembling the metal shoring and removing some overburden that now sits atop the wreck.  Maryland Public Television will also be arriving in the late afternoon to capture footage for a 30 minute documentary on the USS Scorpion archaeology project. Be sure to check back for our daily updates through the first week of August.

View towards southwest of aluminum barge. The yellow tanks hold water to rinse dive equipment. The wreck is located on the opposite side of the barge.

June 17, 2011

Back on the Patuxent!

This week we returned to the Patuxent River to gather information on the exact coordinates of the wreck and the depth of the sediment overlying the site. A drilling rig worked along side of us and collected two, 6 in. bores to a depth of 50 ft. Understanding the type and location of the strata help our engineers to determine how to build and install the proper cofferdam. The depth of the sediment over the wreck and the height of the hold are also figures that must go into the cofferdam construction equation.
Underwater archaeologists working off boats as they set up the excavation grid (above).

If we do have the USS Scorpion, the ship would have measured about 60 ft. in length, and about 16 ft. in width. The hold would have about a 5 ft. clearance--just enough room to store the sailor's belongings and rations. Based on our metal rod and hydroprobe results, the sediment over the wreck ranges from 3 ft. to just over 9 ft. The water is approximately 9 ft. in depth over the site during high tide, but can drop several feet during low tide.

Wes Hall and Lee Cox document the location and depth of their probes (below).

We will be working through the weekend and should be finished by the middle of next week. Taking the results from this survey, we will use it to determine the placement of larger excavation units along the edges of the wreck and hopefully within the hold area. On July 6th we will mobilize a large barge near the site and excavate at least half a dozen excavation units and conclude the testing during the first week of August.

February 2, 2011

Preparing for Summer Survey 2011

Good news! It looks like we will be back in the field for another season. Two of our main goals for this summer will be to hydroprobe and delineate the known wreck (possible USS Scorpion) and to determine if we have additional wrecks in this stretch of the river. Remote sensing data looks very suspicious and we are wondering if we could have the entire flotilla. The combination of hydroprobing and excavation this summer will hopefully answer these questions.

While the next several months will be filled with drafting legal documents and moving through the environmental permitting process to dive and excavate on the wreck this summer, we are also feverishly looking for funding. We are close to securing the full amount to construct the cofferdam, but continue to search out sources of funding and grants. Wish us luck!