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!
smrarchaeology’s photostream on Flickr.
Photos from the 2013 fieldwork season at Historic St. Mary’s City