July 22, 2008 – Tuesday – It’s All in the Details

By Toni Carrell

For the past couple of days Jason and I have been excavating in an area at the north end of the site in an effort to locate the end of the broken keel at the Black Rock Wreck. That will give us a better idea of the total length of the ship and be another clue to its identity. As we fire up the dredges the normally clear blue water of the lagoon turns to the color of milk and Jason disappears, even though he is only 8 feet away. From that point forward it is a matter of experience, patience, and attention to detail to discover the true nature of the artifact we are investigating.

Dredging at Black Rock wreck-site

These three elements are the same ones we use in the study of the largest single artifact – the ship itself. In preparing for this project we assembled information from a number of sources. For example, we gathered records from the US Consul stationed on Grand Turk from 1818 to 1906. That list yielded nearly a dozen wreck events on East Caicos. We further narrowed those to losses that specifically mention Breezy Point. We pursued information on the ships registries and loss records from the National Archives, obtained copies of lines plans on brigs and slaver brigs built from 1820-1860 from the Smithsonian, and scoured journals and reports for comparative examples from other archaeological sites.

All of this information was pulled together in briefing books for each of the three ships. To that we added reference resources in electronic format that covered everything from Spanish military buttons to English and American Colonial bottles. But why go to all this trouble?

Trouvadore Project briefing books

In the real world of maritime archaeology X never marks the spot and finding the ship’s bell with its name is extremely rare. So we must rely on the all the details we’ve compiled and our experience in interpreting what we see. For example, because we had information on the armament on the US Brig Chippewa and a reference that includes lengths, and bore diameters, we were able to positively identify the wreck by the 32-pounder carronades on the site.

The ship lines allow us to locate significant ship features, postulate the relationship between the master frame and the mast step, the shape of the hull, and the potential breadth and depth of the hull. By knowing the length of the existing hull remains and comparing that information to the archival information on the known wrecks at Breezy Point, we have been able to eliminate several ships as candidates for the identification of the Black Rock Wreck. We have also been able to identify the metal hulled wreck as Dorian and tentatively identify the composite hull wreck as the schooner J. Taylor.

Drawings of an American-built slave-ship

Another detail we discovered is that in 1820-1825 two Chesapeake Bay shipwrights went to Cuba to build slave ships for the Spanish slave trade. In 1841, the US Consul in Havana, Nicholas Trist, was recalled for not stopping the sale of US-built ships to Spanish slave traders. These two minor details mean that we will also need to check our wreck to see if it was built in feet and inches, which could lead us to another clue to its identity.

Bit by bit we build our case and check the details. Our patience and planning give us the clues, our experience gives us the ability to interpret them, and eventually identify the site. Maybe we will even be able to give the Black Rock Wreck a name.