July 11, 2008 – Friday – Maritime Archaeology on Spin Cycle – Part One

By James Hunter

The first step towards understanding any historic shipwreck is to document, as accurately as possible, the archaeological material (artifacts, hull structure, etc.) that comprises the site. This includes the relative position—or context—of each item in its original “as found” location. As our fearless Commander Don Keith has stated on many an occasion, “if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” This certainly makes sense: In order to understand the extent, composition, and significance of a particular site—in terms ranging from simple (location) to complex (what does all this old stuff on the seabed actually mean, anyway?)— records must be kept of what is discovered. Naturally, the more detailed these notes are, the better. Since I embarked on a career in maritime archaeology over ten years ago, site mapping and documentation has become my bailiwick, so to speak. The challenge of piecing together the puzzle of a particular shipwreck from its many disparate—and often incomplete—elements really appeals to me. As it happens, I also have an affinity for illustrating, which doesn’t hurt either. Combining both in the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean would have to be the proverbial icing on the cake, right? I certainly operated under that assumption until I had my first taste documenting the remnants of the U.S. Brig Chippewa.

To put what I am about to describe in context, it’s probably best that I explain where the wreck is located. The Northwest Point of Providenciales is positioned at the confluence of the western Atlantic Ocean and eastern Caribbean Sea, and borders the eastern edge of the Caicos Passage, a deepwater chasm that plummets to a depth of thousands of feet. As an exposed outcrop of land, the Point is buffeted by both wind and waves on a fairly consistent basis. Breakers that strike Northwest Point are generated by ocean swells, which in turn are fueled (at this time of year, anyway) by easterly and northeasterly winds that blow unabated and unobstructed for hundreds—possibly thousands—of miles. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate: there’s one obstruction that absorbs the majority of this wave energy before it hits shore—the reef that extends northeast from the Point approximately one mile into the sea. As it happens, the wreck of Chippewa sits at the extreme seaward end of this reef.

The mastband from the mainmast of the US Brig Chippewa.

During our first excursion to the reef to look for the wrecks of the U.S. Navy vessels, I was lulled into a false sense of security by the conditions I observed. The water was clear, and the seabed featured numerous coral-covered rock outcrops interspersed with areas of relatively featureless sand bottom littered with a lot of coral debris. This latter feature should have immediately triggered alarm bells in my head, but as I was busy: a) searching for shipwreck remains, followed in short order by; b) checking out the fantastic array of sea life among the reef, the concern that should have registered simply didn’t take. I was particularly awestruck by seemingly innumerable clusters of orange-colored coral that extended fingerlike from rocks nearly to the water’s surface. The stuff was everywhere—a fact that, as it turns out, worked to my detriment. But more on that in a moment.

The end result of that day’s search was the discovery of no less than five carronades, stubby large-caliber iron cannons that comprised most of Chippewa’s 18-gun complement. We also discovered an iron mast-hoop, standing on end as though still wrapped around the felled wooden spar that it was once a component of, as well as a variety of other odds-and-ends (iron bolts, possible mast partners, etc.) that likely originated from the U.S. Navy brig. Flush with elation and excitement over our discovery, we made plans to return to the site the following morning and begin documenting what had been found.

One of the 32-pounder carronades covered in firecoral.

Don Keith and I initiated mapping the site by recording the dimensions of three carronades discovered in very close proximity to one another. The rationale for obtaining these measurements was fairly straightforward—we knew that Chippewa carried 32-pounder carronades, each of which should have a bore diameter of roughly 6.3 inches. This number reflects archival records that address the standard bore diameter for 32-pounder carronades in U.S. naval service between 1816 and 1840. As it turns out, Don and I quickly established that the bore dimension of each gun was a close match to our historic sources. This in turn gave us more confidence that the scatter of weaponry and ship’s fittings that the team discovered originated from Chippewa. Towards the end of our dive, I noticed the surge created by waves moving across the reef seemed a little stronger than when we entered the water, but didn’t think too much of it. We had accomplished quite a bit, and were able to work efficiently despite the conditions.

To be continued…