Monthly Archives: July 2013

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


Announcement of Findings

Since the first article is now out, I will take this time to discuss some of our findings from the project this summer!

First, to keep you from having to go back through the older posts, a quick description of the work we performed this year.

The site was known as an oval-shaped distribution of probable stone ballast, 50ft. in length, in the St. Mary’s River adjacent to the town center area of the 17th-century settlement at St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Previous finds on site included Dutch red bricks and two large bore pipestems, along with cobblestones described as ‘European’ in origin. Our work was intended to relocate the site, and test several areas to determine a date, origin, and general nature of the site.

We excavated 6 1x1m test units on and around the site, with three units landing directly on the feature, which was buried under the riverine sediments. From the units on the site, we found very heavy concentrations of cobbles, approximately 30cm thick, and stacked in a way that suggested intentional order – larger cobbles on top – which would have helped hold the stones smaller stones in place keeping the ballast from shifting. The sheer quantity of the stones and the size and shape of the distribution, along with the seemingly intentional order of them, indicate that the site is the remains of a ship rather than a dump of ballast.

Several small finds within the ballast have helped narrow the date. The two pipestems mentioned above would indicate a date to the second half of the 17th century, if they are in fact associated with the site. Our work this summer found only one datable artifact. This was a sherd of a North Devon Sgraffito Jug, the decoration of which being highly characteristic of 17th century manufacture. This ceramic type is found almost exclusively on sites dating between 1650 and 1700.

Another small find was a wooden fragment, rounded in one dimension, and resembling a piece of a hollow log. Microscopic species testing on the object indicates that it is elm, which was commonly used as the keel of a ship, or as the bilge pump. The shape is consistent with that of a bilge pump, and the location of the find well within the ballast would make sense, although any number of wooden fittings would be possible.

The ballast itself is a diagnostic artifact, helping to determine where this vessel was when it ballasted. Geologist Ralph Eshelman, PhD, examined the stones, indicating that they were likely English in origin, with a possibility of also being from Newfoundland, as the geologies are very similar. Further work has found a possible source of the ballast, from a unique cobble spit along the North Devon coast of England called the Northam Burrows Pebble Ridge. This source is very near the kiln sites for the ceramic sherd found on our site, making it very possible that this vessel was trading between North Devon or Bristol, and the Chesapeake. These are well documented trade routes, typically exchanging wool and pottery for Tobacco.

Additionally, a number of handmade bricks were found in association with the ballast, creating the possibility that they were either used as ballast, or perhaps from the ship’s hearth, although no mortar was found on any of the samples, indicating that they were not part of any constructed feature on board.

The evidence all points to an English ship, dating to the second half of the 17th century, possibly trading from  southwest England. The proximity to shore and the low density of artifacts indicate that the ship was abandoned here along the shores of St. Mary’s, and would have been stripped of anything of value. The vessel likely came into port heavily damaged by storms or ship worms, and was deemed unsafe for further travel and beyond repair. Ships were often used beyond their safe usable life, and this one appears to have been fortunate to have made it to port rather than being lost at sea. No timbers were found in the excavations, indicating that the site is either in a very bad state of decay, or that it keeled over on one side as it decomposed. Future testing of the site is necessary to better understand these questions.

This is only the 2nd 17th century English vessel identified on mainland North America, the other being the pinnace Sparrow Hawk which wrecked along the shores of Boston in 1626. Additionally, this is the first ship associated with the Chesapeake tobacco trade yet found, and we hope to learn more about it through further analysis and research. Thanks to everyone who helped with this project! I will be giving a lecture tomorrow evening (25 July 2013) at the visitors center at Historic St. Mary’s City at 7.00pm to discuss the project, our findings, and some other facets of my research. Entry is free. Hope to see many of you there!


Our trusty boat, the 'floating porch'Image 1AMBA0012AMBA0010DSCF1192AMBA0056
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Photos from the 2013 fieldwork season at Historic St. Mary’s City

Update – 16 July, 2013

Hi everyone!

Terribly sorry for not updating for several weeks. The explanation for the delay is that we have some findings to announce, and have been waiting for an appropriate time to put the word out. This is still not the platform in which we wish to announce our findings, but we will be issuing a press release in the next week, after which time I will be discussing the findings more openly on this blog and in the media. Rest assured, exciting things are on the way. I will also be giving a talk on the 25th of July at Historic St. Mary’s City on my findings and other research at 7.00pm to kick off the Tidewater Archaeology Days at the museum. The lecture is free and open to the public, so we hope to see you there!