Using modern scanning sonar, oceanographers have found an unknown ship wreck more than a mile deep off the North Carolina coast, with its artifacts indicating the period to the American Revolution period in the late 18th century when a young United States was expanding its trade with the rest of the world by sea.
Marine scientists from Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of Oregon discovered the wreck on July 12 aboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) research ship Atlantis using the robotic autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry and the manned submersible Alvin.
The artifacts discovered included iron chain, a pile of wooden ship timbers, red bricks possibly from the ship cook’s hearth, glass bottles, an unglazed pottery jug, a metal compass, and another navigational instrument that might be an octant or sextant.
“This is an exciting find, and a vivid reminder that even with major advances in our ability to access and explore the ocean, the deep sea holds its secrets close,” said expedition leader Cindy Van Dover of the Duke University Marine Laboratory.
“I have led four previous expeditions to this site, each aided by submersible research technology to explore the sea floor — including a 2012 expedition where we used Sentry to saturate adjacent areas with sonar and photo images,” Van Dover said.
Now their find will pass on to the NOAA to decide the date and identify the lost ship, which Bruce Terrell, chief archaeologist at the Marine Heritage Program, says should be possible by examining the ceramics, bottles and other artifacts.
“Lying more than a mile down in near-freezing temperatures, the site is undisturbed and well preserved,” Terrell said. “Careful archaeological study in the future could definitely tell us more.”
The wreck found in the path of the Gulf Stream was known to have been used by mariners for centuries as a maritime highway to North American ports, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and South America.
The shp wreck was not new as violent storms off the Carolina coasts have submerged several vessels but few have been located because of the difficulties of depth and working in an offshore environment, said oceanographers.
Van Dover is a specialist in the ecology of deep-sea ecosystems that are powered by chemistry rather than sunlight. “Our accidental find illustrates the rewards — and the challenge and uncertainty — of working in the deep ocean,” Van Dover said. “We discovered a shipwreck but, ironically, the lost mooring was never found.”
The expedition for the development of Sentry came from National Science Foundation grants and NOAA’s Marine Heritage Program is part of its Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.