Fieldwork Lecture Thursday, 30 January, 2014 – University of Southampton – Live Broadcast!

Hi folks,

I’ll be giving a lecture at the University of Southampton on our 2013 field season in the St. Mary’s River this Thursday, which will be live broadcast over the internet for anyone who wishes to watch. I’ll be discussing the work we did, current interpretations of the site, and our future plans. For anyone just now finding this blog, the project I will be discussing is an underwater archaeological project examining what is possibly the remains of a 17th-century English ship in the Chesapeake. Exciting stuff! You can live tweet your questions (I know, I know… I hate Twitter too), at #CMARG. The lecture is taking place at 2.00pm, GMT (9am EST, 1500 CET) on 30 January. If you can’t watch it live, the content will still be available for a period of time later, so you can watch it at your convenience. This lecture will be very open to audience participation, so ask any questions you might have! I really hope the link stays the same to watch… sometimes technology gets the better of us and the link has to change last minute. Watch it here!

– Scott

CMA 2014 lecture poster

North Devon

Last week I travelled to the UK (from my new home in Germany!) to explore North Devon, the region which I believe the ship site in Maryland to have come from. Those who have read the previous posts will know that we found very little material on the site, so our general approach to the analysis is to extract every last bit of information we can from each artefact. I was lead to North Devon, partly because of the single ceramic sherd found on the site, originating in North Devon, and also as I had found a geological feature along the N. Devon coastline with  cobbles which appeared to match the ballast from the Maryland site. My general understanding of this feature was that it was very unique, based on what I was able to gather from internet searches while back in North America.

My goals for my time in North Devon were to examine the Northam Burrows Pebble Ridge, visit the museum of Barnstaple, and search the cities of Barnstaple and Bideford for old buildings with oddly sized bricks (approx.  1.75x5x10 inches), as found on our site. I was staying in the seaside village of Westward Ho! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), directly along the pebble ridge. It is truly an interesting feature. It is literally the edge of a glacier, one that once connected England to mainland Europe prior to the end of the Pleistocene. Walking around, I became quite certain that I was in the right region. The stones were geomorphologically identical to the ballast from the St. Mary’s ship. Unfortunately though, the stones are not quite as unique as I had thought. They could have come from a large number of shoreline sites along the Bristol Channel. The limestone and chalk stones are also interesting. There is no limestone on the English side of the Bristol Channel. There is plenty of it though on the Welsh shore of the Channel, meaning that the ship had likely visited Wales. Lime was imported to N. Devon though, which was used as a tempering agent in the ceramics produced in Barnstaple and Bideford.

The next day I got on the bus to Barnstaple to visit the Museum of North Devon to have a look at the ceramics on display. Of course, the Sgraffito ware was the main focus, as this was the type found on the site. The museum was small, but well laid out. They put a great deal of focus on the pottery produced in the area, which was exactly what I was hoping for. North Devon produced several utilitarian wares, known in the archaeological community through equally utilitarian names: North Devon Gravel Tempered, and North Devon Gravel Free. But the Sgraffito and Trail decorated slipwares are of a much finer, high status type, and were very popular in England and its colonial holdings. We find a fair amount of all types of ceramics from North Devon in the Chesapeake, so it was exciting to visit the museum and see some complete examples, which are rare in the ‘plow zone’ archaeology that largely defines the practice in Maryland and Virginia.  At the end of the museum visit, I asked at the front desk if there was anyone I could talk to about stylistic dating of sgraffito wares, not expecting much from such a small museum. To my surprise, the museums development manager for Barnstaple, Alison Mills, another archaeologist, came down and greeted me, and let me explore the collections above. They have a wide range of ceramics from the various kiln sites of Barnstaple, which was absolutely fascinating for me. A normal collection of ceramics from an archaeological site is one of finished, salable products. Being that these are from kiln sites, I was viewing instead a very different type of collection. This was largely comprised of ceramics that were not good enough for sale, often over-fired, or defective in some way, causing them to be discarded before sale. Sadly, throughout the entire collection of sgraffito, I could not find an analogue for the sherd from the ship site. There is hope though, as I am now in contact with the leading expert on this type. Hopefully I will have an update in the coming days.

The final day was spend walking around Bideford and Barnstaple observing the local sites, and hoping to find some old brick architecture. There really wasn’t much around. I stopped in Bideford first, and walked around finding very few old brick buildings. One place that caught my eye, was a  pub called ‘The Custom’s House.’ I decided to go in for a coffee, and to get out of the rain. It was a rather quaint little pub with more than a little maritime charm. This building was in fact, the customs house for the city, built sometime in the late 17th-century, and used as such until sometime in the mid-19th century (English Heritage). The bar was made to look like the hull of a wooden ship, which I rather appreciated.

Moving onward to Barnstaple, I wanted to walk around Tuly Street, once the centre of ceramic production for the city. To my disappointment, the street is now home to car parks and grocery chains. Heading back to the High Street I came across the only potentially 17th-century building I had yet observed. English Heritage places this building at an early to mid 17th-century date. Of course it is now a store, but it is constructed of odd and irregular sized handmade bricks, very thick mortar joins, and laid out in English Bond, meaning one row of stretchers (laid out lengthwise) and one row of headers (laid out width-wise). Interestingly, many of the bricks were rather thin, at around 1.75 inches, and rather long, at around 10 inches. This is quite similar to the the bricks found on the Maryland ship site, which were almost all only around 1.75 inches thick. While this doesn’t say much, it can be said that analogous bricks are found in England, and particularly in North Devon. I haven’t spent enough time observing old brick work in other parts of England to say that this is rare, but bricks of this size certainly are for the New World.

All in all, this was a very informative trip. I certainly gained a lot of insights into this historic area, the role it played in the tobacco trade, and its connection with the Chesapeake region. Aside from that, it is simply a hugely interesting area. The geology is something which I have never before encountered and the historic period ceramics are fascinating. The inter-tidal area of the river was something new and interesting for me as well. This area experiences the second highest tidal range in the world, and at low tide the beach extends about 300 meters from the pebble ridge. At high tide, the ridge is partially submerged. Watching the tide come in was a real treat. To finish this post, I’ll leave you with a few of the more scenic photographs from the trip. Thanks for reading!


So where’s the gold?

Now that the findings of the site have been made public, I have been seeing and hearing quite frequently one of the most common questions asked to archaeologists. It is a question that makes us all cringe, ranging right up there with ‘find any dinosaur bones yet?’. I want to take a few minutes to clarify this now. This question is of course, ‘where’s the gold?’

The short answer to this question is, there isn’t any. This site in particular is very low on artifact finds as it was an abandoned vessel, rather than one lost in a wrecking event. Anything of value would have been removed: from the cargo, to the sails, to the metals used to hold parts of the ship together.

In the 17th-century Chesapeake, there would be little reason for any gold to be present. The Virginia Company of London founded the Jamestown colony to search for gold, despite the Spanish having already visited and determining that there were not any precious metals. Rather than finding gold though, the Virginia colonists found the ‘Golden Leaf.’ Tobacco quickly became the most important crop in the New World, and fortunes were made on it. But the fortunes were not chests filled with gold coins. Tobacco actually became the currency of the region. People would settle debts with tobacco, probate inventories value goods in pounds of tobacco, and the colonists would buy goods from England with the tobacco they shipped overseas. It was really more of a credit system. Colonists would grow their tobacco, send it to a merchant in England, and include a shopping list. The merchant would then send back the goods with the ships on the following year, which more often than not equaled or exceeded the value of tobacco sent in previous years.

Aside from this, the real value of any archaeological site lies in the information it carries, rather than the neat stuff that it may contain. The ship loses its intellectual value as items are removed from it. This is the main point of contention between archaeologists and treasure hunters. Without context, a find has no meaning. As treasure hunters remove goods from a site, the entire site loses its context, and the important questions that it could answer are gone, all for the sake of someone placing a conversation piece on their mantel. I realize that the allure of gold and riches entices many to want to venture out onto historic wrecks, searching for items of value, but when this is done, the information is lost, and this information is worth more than its weight in gold.

WHAG TV Coverage

Hagerstown NBC Affiliate WHAG covered our story today!

Full coverage:

Press Release


For immediate release

Ship Remains Identified in the St. Mary’s River

Working and pleasure boats have plied Maryland waters for centuries.  No one knows how many wrecked or abandoned ships lay hidden In Maryland’s rivers and bays.  One suspected underwater site that was first mapped in 1994 gave up some of its secrets this summer.   Scott Tucker, archaeologist and doctoral candidate from University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, has been exploring what may be the remains of a ship in the St. Mary’s River, with the Maryland state museum, Historic St. Mary’s City.

Ten feet beneath the surface, Tucker and a crew of volunteer divers found a heavy concentration of stones in an oval-shaped area that was over 50 feet long.  “The shape suggested that the site is the remains of a ship.  Now we know the stacked, rounded cobble stones were used as ballast, since there is an order to them.  The larger cobbles tend to be at the top of the ballast, helping to fix the smaller stones in place below,” Tucker reports.   “You can see where they were placed side by side by someone over 300 years ago.  And these stones are unique.  They are not typical of Maryland.  Instead, we found a possible source on the North Devon coast of England, a geological feature called the Northam Pebble Ridge.”  The size of the ballast distribution suggests a ship of roughly 100-120 tonne burden, an average sized ship for trans-Atlantic trade during this period.

The archaeologists were not totally surprised to find that no timbers or ship architecture were uncovered, given the harsh environment of the small test areas, but the few artifacts that were recovered offer more clues about the site.  Tobacco pipes and Dutch red bricks excavated in the 1990s suggested the remains might date to the latter half of the 17th century.   “This year we found a ceramic fragment in between the ballast stones that is part of a North Devon Sgraffito jug.  Tucker said, “The decoration is distinctive and dates it to 1650-1700, supporting our initial dating of the vessel.  It was fired in a kiln quite close to the probable source of the ballast!”  Direct trade from North Devon to Maryland is well documented throughout the second half of the seventeenth century.

A shaped wooden fragment, possibly a piece of a ship’s bilge pump, was also recovered. Researchers determined the wood is elm and hope further research may reveal more about its source.  Discovery of this well preserved piece gives hope that portions of the hull survive elsewhere under the ballast.

Since few artifacts were found and the remains are close to what was the 17th-century shoreline, researchers suspect the ship was abandoned rather than wrecked.  Cargo and items of value would have been removed.   “While a wreck filled with goods would be more exciting, there is still much we can learn from the remains of this ancient abandoned vessel, “   HSMC’s Director of Research Henry Miller, Ph.D.  commented, “The findings strongly suggest that this is indeed a 17th-century ship.  Given its likely English origin and size, it was probably a tobacco ship that carried settlers and goods to Maryland and tobacco back to Europe.  Such vessels were the vital link for the early Chesapeake economy.  While thousands of vessels engaged in the Tobacco Trade during the colonial era, this is the first 17th-century one to be identified by archaeologists.  Scott’s work gives us another hint of the vast store of archaeological evidence and historical knowledge that lies hidden under the waters of Chesapeake Bay.”

State Underwater Archaeologist Susan Langley, Ph.D. remarked on the superior quality of Tucker’s research design and commended his level of effort. “We are looking forward to reading his report and reviewing the evidence,” said Langley,

Tucker’s work was funded by the Elsie Carper Charitable Foundation with support from University of Southampton, Historic St. Mary’s City Commission, the Institute for Maritime History, and the Maryland Historical Trust.

For more information about Historic St. Mary’s City and archaeology on the site of Maryland’s first capital, visit or contact the museum at 800-762-1634or     240-895-4967