Secrets and mysteries buried in Vienna shipwreck

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VIENNA—There are secrets and mysteries in wooden bones found in the Nanticoke River. Framing members and timbers of what is believed to be parts of an 18th-century merchant ship were found 30 feet down in the river, under the Route 50 bridge, preserved in mud for more than 200 years.

The wooden fender system around the base of one of the  bridge’s support pilings, which had been struck and damaged by a barge this past February, led to the discovery.

A commercial dive team was enlisted to locate and remove debris from the shipping lane in preparation for repairs. Workers recognized that the wood being hauled to the barge was far older than the material used in the protective system and notified the State Highway Administration of their discovery.

Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration and her team came to Vienna to investigate. Within minutes the team concluded the remains were that of an early ship — based on construction techniques — and arranged to have the timbers removed from the barge. The pieces were loaded onto a tugboat, then onto a 50-foot flatbed truck and hauled without delay to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in Calvert County.

Debris is a merchant ship

A portable above-ground swimming pool was purchased in which the timbers were submerged in fresh water. “If they weren’t kept wet they would soon start drying out, warping and twisting, making conservation impossible,” Schablitsky said.

The pieces have been scanned by a laser, she said, and will be used in computer-generated three-dimensional “rebuilding” of the vessel. Though she believes only 20 percent of the vessel was recovered, what was found are the key elements in determining measurements of the vessel.

“What we found were pieces of a merchant ship about 40 to 45 feet long,” she said. “We do have the keel and the keelson, the very bottom of the ship, and that helped us determine the ship’s length.”

The use of “treenails” — wooden pegs — in the construction left little doubt the vessel, made of oak, was centuries old. Using modern sleuthing techniques, such as dendrochronology (studying  the annual growth rings in the timber used and comparing them with established dated benchmarks in other discoveries) the team came up with a date of 1743 to the late 1700s. It may also be possible to determine the region in which the trees were felled. It is believed to be the oldest ship found in Maryland. Whether it had one or two sails has yet to be determined, the archeologist said. The ship, she said, was probably used to move cargo, perhaps hogsheads of tobacco, farm goods and even livestock and may have ferried cargo to and from larger ships to plantations and merchants.

Strange, curious carvings

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On examining the quality of the work on the recovered pieces, Schablitsky and others believe the vessel was built on a local plantation by slaves or indentured servants. “The workmanship isn’t that of professional builders,” she said.

“At least three curious or strange carvings have been found,” she said. “We don’t know what they mean. Usually when you see carvings on a ship, they were put there during the construction process, usually Roman numbers, but these were different. There are two geometric patterns (carvings) that no one in our team of underwater archeologists and maritime historians, had ever seen before.”

Were they simply construction diagrams used when building the boat?

“They may have been put there for construction purposes. It’s a mystery, No one knows.” They are clues in wood, crisp and clear as they day they were cut two centuries ago.

The timbers  may have drifted to the site or been exposed when construction of the bridge was under way in the 1990s.

“An examination of the timbers in the lab revealed evidence that they had been ‘exposed’ on the bottom, meaning they had been removed from the mud or muck for some time,” she said. “It was so murky at the bottom,” she said, “divers could only feel for objects.”

Schablitsky feels confident that most of the timbers at the site were recovered. “Archaeologists used a hydro-plumbing pipe (forcing water under pressure through a pipe to move bottom sediment) to see if there were any more ship pieces. It’s unlikely there’s anything left of that wreck down there other than some disarticulated pieces.”

An iron deadeye, used for managing sail ropes, was found, but the lack of iron and other metal parts, Schablitsky said, suggests that the boat was not constructed by professional builders at a major boat-building site. Also found was evidence that some of the wood was charred, suggesting the vessel had been burned. It is known that Vienna was attacked several times during the late 1700s by the British.
For archaeologist and consultant Ed Otter of Fruitland, the site may have other artifacts yet to be recovered. “I just can’t believe the remains weren’t destroyed during construction of the bridge in the ’90s. Just a few feet one way or another and they could have been destroyed when those fittings and pilings were placed.

“If the ship went down at that  site in the late 1700s, especially if burned by the British,” Otter said, “there may have been things onboard used in the daily life of the crew that may have survived, such as tools, gear, utensils, fittings, even plates. It’s a real shame this wasn’t found by archaeologists first and recovered, but no one expected to find a ship at a site where a bridge had been built. It’s just amazing what has survived. This find is simply incredible.”

Dorchester County Commissioner Tom Bradshaw, who is also a Vienna historian, said the discovery has renewed interest in the town’s history. “This is amazing stuff, just unbelievable,” he said.

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