July 27, 2008 – Sunday – The Big Picture

By Donald Keith

After three action-packed weeks the 2008 Expedition is finally over. We’ve said our farewells and gone back to our “day jobs.” All the archaeologists have flown back to their headquarters in the US, Australia, and Grand Cayman. The Explorer’s crew has cleaned the ship, re-provisioned, and put back to sea with a regular charter. Toni, Neal and I are now back at the Museum on Grand Turk, waiting for the container with all our equipment to arrive from Provo so we can clean, repair, and lay it all up for the next expedition.

Equipment on the dock at Provo ready for loading into our container and shipping to the Museum on Grand Turk

I have been giving some thought to what I am going to say tonight at a forum on our expedition, open to the public, to be held at Big Daddy’s restaurant. How can I sum up all the things that happened over the last three weeks in just a few minutes? I tick off the goals set for the expedition that we met: Identify US brig Chippewa: Check! Conduct a magnetic survey around Ft. St. George Cay: Check! Finish the magnetic survey of the north coast of East Caicos and examine all anomalies that could represent shipwrecks: Check! Excavate a transverse trench across the Black Rock exposing it from keel to deck knee: Check! Find one of its mast steps: Check! Record dimensions of all major timbers: Check! Film everything in HD video: Check! Post an expedition log on the Internet: Check! And last but not least, stay in budget: Check!

Mapping the floor timbers on the Black Rock Wreck

I look at the list. Something’s missing. The list is just things we planned to do before we went into the field, and doesn’t include all the other things that just happened. Without them, the story is incomplete. What about the whale shark adventure? I reflect that it’s a good thing Captain JF, Randy, and Jack got the whole thing on HD video or the rest of us would never have believed them! Then there’s the afternoon we spent with local informant Gale Anspach looking for a will-o’-the-wisp shipwreck discovered in the 1970s by local dive operator Art Pickering. The artifacts removed from this site indicate that it dates to the second half of the 18th century, making it one of the oldest shipwrecks ever found in the TCI, and we would really like to find it. We didn’t, but we narrowed the search area. While we were anchored off lonely, uninhabited East Caicos, the only island in the Caicos that hasn’t been developed yet, we sent “away teams” out on two occasions to record sites on land and under water. Both these sites had been on our list of potential archaeological and historical sites of interest for years, so when the opportunities and resources were available, we took advantage of them to add those sites to the Museum’s database.

The ruins of a plantation on East Caicos

There are also things on our list of goals that I can’t tick off: We did not find US schooner Onkahye—but we think we know where it is. There was a magnetic anomaly near Provo’s Northwest Reef that could well be it. On East Caicos we didn’t find the extreme ends of the Black Rock Wreck’s keel. One end was broken off just beyond the ballast mound and the other was buried too deeply to uncover. We brought a more powerful dredge that could have handled that job—but after being in storage for 13 years, it couldn’t be coaxed back to life. We also didn’t find any diagnostic artifacts that could positively identify the Black Rock Wreck either as Trouvadore or as some other vessel.

Of course the most important goal of all was to “find Trouvadore,” and I know that will be the question on everyone’s mind tonight. The short answer is that there is compelling circumstantial evidence that the Black Rock Wreck is Trouvadore. The phrase “circumstantial evidence” means that although we didn’t find an artifact like the ship’s bell with its name and launch date written on it, there is a lot of other evidence which, taken as a whole, is pretty convincing.

For example, if we compare what little we know about Trouvadore from the official documents—that it was a brigantine of about 111 tons—with the Black Rock Wreck’s hull remains, we have points of congruency. The term “brigantine” is imprecise, but it does convey that Trouvadore had two masts. One of the critical discoveries we made was the location of the Black Rock Wreck’s “master frame,” the one that defines the ship’s maximum breadth, or “beam.” The discovery came in the form of a barely-visible asterisk carved into one side of a floor timber, a convention shipwrights used to designate the aft side of the master frame. Using ship plans from the Smithsonian for reference, we measured a typical distance from a brigantine’s master frame to the aft mast and located a mast step (the place where the heel of the mast rested on the keelson). So the Black Rock Wreck could have been a brigantine.

Asterisk on master frame of the Black Rock Wreck

The transverse excavation from keel to deck beam gives us pretty good estimates for both the ship’s breadth (24 ft) and depth of hold (9 ft). Our estimate for the wreck’s length is less precise, but although we were never able to locate either end of the keel, the known length of continuous remains is over 100 ft. Depending on the shape of the hull, these dimensions could be those of a ship of 111 tons.

Other circumstantial evidence includes:
• No artifacts have been found on the Black Rock Wreck that could not have been on Trouvadore.
• The Black Rock Wreck is located about 4 kilometers to the West and a little North of Breezy Point, and artifacts associated with it have been found hundreds of yards to the East. It is apparent that the Black Rock Wreck first struck the reef much closer to Breezy Point, and drifted with the prevailing wind and current steadily westward to its present position.
• Of the eight ships that are recorded as coming to grief on or around Breezy Point, our research has eliminated all but Trouvadore as matches for the Black Rock Wreck.

So is this the end? No. There are artifacts to preserve, analyses to make, reports to write, and a lot more archival research. There will be other expeditions, major and minor, and related projects. So come back and check this site every now and then. We’ll keep you posted . . . .