October 13, 2008

Treasures so Near, Yet so Far

By Tom Mooney

In May, as a handful of local archaeologists watched from the gunwales of four research ships, warfare scientists for the Navy and federal oceanographers lowered several high-tech robots into Narragansett Bay's waters between Portsmouth and Jamestown.

Some of the robots resembled torpedoes. Others looked like mechanical crabs. The newest of their kind, the remote-controlled, sonar-imaging machines had been designed to find mines buried on the sea floor or attached to ship hulls. But for two weeks, the Navy had offered them for another purpose as well: to test their capabilities in locating archaeological artifacts hidden, in some cases, under two centuries of silt.

For marine archaeologists Charlotte Taylor, D. K. "Kathy" Abbass and Rod Mather, those two spring weeks would be a cruel tease.

From computer screens, for example, they examined the most vivid sonar images ever seen of remnants of the British frigate Orpheus, intentionally run aground and burned during the Revolutionary War so it would not fall into the hands of the colonists' French naval allies.

Yet, as the scientists watched, they knew the Orpheus was out of their reach, too.

Until Rhode Island has a place to preserve what the archaeologists say is a wealth of important artifacts from hundreds of shipwrecks strewn across the Bay's bottom, much of those bits of history will remain in the silt.

"We want to get in the water right now," says Taylor, an archaeologist with the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, whose job includes protecting Rhode Island's shipwrecks. "The only thing holding underwater archaeology back is that when you bring an artifact up, you need a place to keep it and preserve it."

If not properly treated and cared for, timbers dry to dust and iron crumbles to rust.

IN HER BASEMENT office in the old State House on Benefit Street, in Providence, Taylor keeps a collection of shipwreck artifacts wrapped in plastic and stored in drawers.

Many of the artifacts -- a charred rigging block from the Orpheus, soles from leather shoes, lead balls of rifle shot and hand grenades -- were brought up in the early 1970s by a graduate student from the University of Rhode Island who dove to the sites of the scuttled British frigates.

Other artifacts have been brought up by archaeologists, who Taylor says knew that to leave them on the bottom of the Bay would expose the relics to deteriorating bacteria or scavenging scuba divers.

But Taylor worries about the condition of some of the artifacts in her collection. For instance, a fungus has attacked the wooden rigging block from the Orpheus, she says. Its condition illustrates the need for some means of permanent preservation.

Taylor claims Rhode Island has more shipwrecks per square mile than any other state. But the figure of 2,000 she uses includes the likes of recently sunk lobster boats that hold little historical significance.

Rhode Island does have, she says, the largest number of known Revolutionary War shipwrecks. She rattles off nine, counting with her fingers.

They include three other British frigates like the Orpheus, purposely destroyed off Portsmouth, and at least four British transport ships that were scuttled between mainland Newport and Goat Island in 1778 to prevent the French fleet from sailing into the harbor.

One of the transport ships -- scientists don't know which one -- is believed to be the former Endeavour, captained by British explorer James Cook in 1769 into the Pacific, becoming the first European ship to make landfall on Australia.

The naval technology used last spring also mapped and scanned two little known 20th-century vessels first discovered in 2004 off Prudence Island by a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both vessels -- one roughly 120 feet long and made of steel and a wooden barge about 100 feet long -- were found in 60 feet of water.

Although the robots did not reveal any new shipwrecks or caches of artifacts that scientists didn't know already existed, Taylor says, they did give local underwater archaeologists a view of what possibilities exist -- if they can get the Navy to bring their robots back.

The robots' ability to "see" artifacts without disturbing the protective layer of anaerobic mud they lie in could allow scientists to better map wreck sites and excavate them properly.

That mud, lacking oxygen and harmful organisms, has preserved ships' remnants for two centuries. Once exposed, the ships' wood and artifacts can quickly deteriorate, which is one reason archaeologists try to dissuade scuba divers from scavenging, says Taylor.

BECAUSE OF THAT natural decaying process, the shipwrecks in the Bay hardly resemble the Disney image of complete vessels resting on the bottom with a mermaid swimming through the portholes, says Rod Mather, an underwater archaeologist and history professor at the University of Rhode Island.

"Often what you end up with essentially is a pile of ballast stones in which artifacts, cannon and military supplies fall into and around," says Mather.

If you're lucky, you may find pieces of the keel or bottom pieces of the hull beneath those thousands of pounds of rock that could yield important historical and cultural information, he says.

"It's certainly true there is a very rich, historically important archaeological record in the Bay, and we are only really touching the surface of it."

Mather heads a university program that locates and maps shipwrecks in Narragansett Bay. So far his team has mapped about 25 sites.

"What we find on the bottom tells us something about how people interacted on Narragansett Bay and helps the state manage and protect them, since [it] owns these archaeological sites. But before we can do that, we need to know where they are."

Rhode Island, he says, "could be a world leader, not just in the academic program" -- spurred on in part by Titanic discoverer and URI alumnus Robert Ballard -- but with discoveries as well.

"It's true we're not realizing its potential, but we are doing good work," says Mather. "One of the things we would like to be able to do is to provide the kind of facility that Charlotte [Taylor] would like to see. It would be great as far as my perspective is concerned to have some kind of state facility here [in Kingston] that would provide the facility and expertise needed to take the Rhode Island archaeological program forward."

D.K. ABBASS would like to see such a facility, too. Her hopes for a location, however, are currently focused across the Bay at an old Revolutionary War site in Portsmouth.

Abbass heads the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, a private nonprofit group founded in 1992 to survey shipwrecks in Rhode Island waters. It has trained more than 200 volunteer sport divers in the basics of underwater archaeology and put them to work locating and mapping sites.

"One reason why we have done very limited digging around the sites," Abbass says, "is because we have no proper conservation facility to protect what we bring up."

Earlier this year, the Marine Archaeology Project won a $31,000 grant from the National Parks Service to develop a preservation and management plan for Fort Butts, one of the highest points of land overlooking the Bay's East Passage. Built by Colonial troops during the Revolutionary War, the fort came under British control in August 1778 after the Battle of Rhode Island. The fort is considered the largest intact Revolutionary War earthwork in Rhode Island.

Abbass participated in the Navy's demonstration in May of its remote sensing technology, which was given the name AUVfest 2008. The acronym stands for autonomous undersea vehicles.

Perhaps, she says, if her group can win public support for the preservation of the fort, it might also raise enough interest and money for a place to preserve the artifacts lifted from the waters that the fort overlooks.

Rhode Island is often ignored in Revolutionary War history, Abbass says. But what happened here, particularly on Narragansett Bay as the colonists and the French went up against the world's superpower, tells an important story.

"This was the first time the Americans and the French were together in the American Revolution." Although the allies failed to push the British out of Newport, their partnership went on for the duration of the war. "The fact that this [the Battle of Rhode Island] was the first event in which the French and the Americans were trying to work together is very significant."

Much of that story, she says, lies on the bottom of Narragansett Bay, waiting to be told.

A documentary about AUVfest 2008, the two-week project in which the Navy used its mine-hunting technology to search for shipwreck artifacts, is scheduled to air at 7:30 tonight on WJAR-TV (NBC10).

Marine archaeologist Charlotte Taylor displays a rigging block from the British warship Cerberus. The Providence Journal / Steve Szydlowski

These grenades are among artifacts that were retrieved in the 1970s by a University of Rhode Island grad student from Revolutionary War wrecks. The Providence Journal / Steve Szydlowski [email protected] / (401) 277-7359

Originally published by Tom Mooney, Journal Staff Writer.

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