The oldest shipwreck ever found along the North Carolina coast could be a 28-gun British naval vessel.
While there is no way to prove it, evidence indicates the wreck discovered seven years ago in the Corolla surf could be the HMS John, which floundered off the coast in 1652.
The identity of the wreck has been a mystery since it washed up in 2008. But now, after researching European shipbuilding techniques of the 1600s and wrecks near North Carolina for two years, maritime archaeologist Dan Brown thinks he’s figured it out.
Brown gave a report on his findings this week at the Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese. The study is part of Brown’s master’s thesis from East Carolina University.
“It was a pretty awesome sight,” Brown, who works for the University of South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, said of the shipwreck. “Somebody worked that piece of wood four centuries ago.”
Brown and a team of researchers studied the worn timbers and construction techniques, making note of every notch and hole. He studied centuries-old records kept by shipbuilding masters. He sought out beachcombers who collected artifacts from the wreck, such as coins and musket balls, questioning exactly where and how they were found.
When it first washed up, some experts thought the wreck might be the HMS Swift, a British ship about 70 feet long that ran aground off Point Comfort in the Chesapeake Bay in 1698. Currents might have carried the ship southward. Its construction was similar to the Sea Venture, which wrecked off the Bahamas in 1609 on its way to Jamestown; they thought it could have been carrying supplies to the settlement.
But Brown said the Swift was too small for this shipwreck. His research considered whether it could have been from Spain, Holland or another colonizing country, but the sheer volume of British ships in the region pointed to British workmanship. Samples showed it was made from a European oak. The coins found by the beachcombers dated from the early 1600s.
Brown narrowed it down to four possibilities: the Ketch, which wrecked in 1609; the Fogel Grip, which sank in 1639; the HMS John, which went down in 1652; and the HMS Swift. The HMS John best matched the time, the workmanship and the size, he said.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the HMS John. Brown learned it was a merchant ship converted into a relatively small navy battle vessel. More records could exist in England, he said.
The Outer Banks coast, known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, is home to about 5,000 historic shipwrecks. The state has records on about 900 wrecks, including more than 150 that show up at times in the surf. Old timbers and pieces of ships turn up regularly, and many are well-known. Occasionally, a new one appears.
Corolla homeowner George Browne found the remains of the wreck in 2008 following a storm and reported it to the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch. The hulk of large, dark timbers fastened together with wooden rods was half buried by sand. The stunted end of a thick keel protruded from the rest of the frame.
This one looked especially old. The sides and upper structures were long gone.
The Corolla wreck was at first believed to be just an ordinary relic coughed up by heavy seas. Researchers did not immediately come to Corolla for a firsthand look, Brown said.
The wreck settled under the sand before reappearing a year later. Browne reported it again. This time, scientists made the trip and determined this vessel could be from the early 1600s, making it older than any other shipwreck found along the North Carolina coast. In the following weeks, rough seas dislodged the wreck and moved it up and down the coast over several miles. Parts of the structure fell off and vanished.
Meanwhile, beachcombers looked it over and found coins from the 1600s, lead balls and rigging parts encrusted on the wood.
Locals and others worried the wreck would float away or break up. The plight drew attention from the media and elected officials. Pressure mounted to save it. Quickly, state and local agencies joined to remove the remains from their unpredictable sandy bed on the shore. The excavation in April 2010 drew a big crowd.
Almost as soon as it was on dry ground, the timbers began to warp and shrink. Today, it sits on a concrete pad behind the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, gradually disintegrating.
Brown said the timbers should have been buried in the wet sand, where they would be preserved until money and a place to preserve the wreck became available. As it is, he said, the dried pieces stand as a great example of how not to save a ship.
Yet it’s still a fascinating artifact – and one worth further study.
“There is still potential to learn more from the wreck,” Brown said.
Source: Jeff Hampton, The Virginian Pilot