QAR lab preserves Blackbeard’s treasures
|Work continues at ECU on conservation of materials from the shipwreck of pirate Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Above, Erik Farrell, a recent UNC-Greensboro graduate and lab volunteer, left, works with Bartosz Dajnowki, a graduate student in art conservation at the University of Delaware, to assemble the 6,500-gallon tank to hold the Queen Anne’s Revenge anchor. (Photos by Cliff Holl|
A few hours after underwater archaeologists plucked one of four large anchors from Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge from the waters near Beaufort Inlet in May, a tourist looking at the encrusted artifact on a flatbed truck asked when it would be on display at a museum.
“Years” was the collective answer from QAR project team members standing nearby.
Today that anchor sits in a 6,500-gallon tank at the QAR Conservation Lab at East Carolina University beside hundreds of other artifacts from the shipwreck site. Similar types of artifacts are submerged in tanks filled with sodium carbonate solutions, waiting to be conserved and prepared for display in the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship, wrecked off the North Carolina coast in 1718. Initial fieldwork at the site under the direction of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources’ Underwater Archaeology Branch began in 1997, and it has progressed slowly and methodically.
The clock is ticking to pull artifacts from the wreckage. “We want to start bringing these pieces up off the main mound because we have a directive for three years to do full recovery as hard as we can, to get it all up. It’s about 50 percent of the site out there,” Mark Wilde-Ramsing, state underwater archaeologist, said in May as he stood by the newly hoisted anchor.
Wilde-Ramsing earned his doctorate in coastal resource management at ECU in 2009. He has directed the Queen Anne’s Revenge project since it began in 1997.
‘A tedious process’
In the lab, located on ECU’s West Research Campus, the work is slow but rewarding, said Shanna Daniel, Queen Anne’s Revenge project conservator.
On a mid-July morning, the warehouse housing approximately 30 holding tanks was muggy and smelled a little like a salt marsh. Sweat poured from two students – one a volunteer and the other an intern from Winthur/University of Delaware – as they finished assembling the tank that now holds the anchor — and will for at least the next year.
Tanks also hold barrel hoops, the ship’s sternpost that was brought up in 2007, and many concretions containing glass beads, ceramics, nails and other small pieces of the ship, tools and personal items of the crew.
In the QAR lab at ECU, artifacts go through a 12-step conservation process that includes documenting the artifact, cleaning, desalination, consolidation, drying and final analysis. The lab is a joint venture between the university and the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.
“For the cleaning process, we’ll mainly be using air scribes (on the anchor),” said Daniel. These are small pneumatic air scribes and are a more controlled way to take off the layers of concretion on the artifacts, such as the cannon. Concretion, the solid mass of mineral deposits, must be removed along with the soluble salts in the metal to make the object stable to be studied, handled and displayed.
The QAR archaeologists and conservators have also used in-situ (on site) monitoring on a limited number of large artifacts while they are still on the seafloor of Beaufort Inlet. The process has the potential to shorten the desalination and stabilization time once the artifact is recovered and moved to the lab. Wendy Welsh, QAR Conservator and Lab Manager, leads those efforts.
“So actually this anchor began conservation before we ever got it in,” Daniel said.
“The main goal is not to hurt the surface of the artifact,” Daniel said, while they are removing the concretion. She could only guess at how long it will take for the conservation team to clean the anchor.
“A cannon can take up to a year or more to clean so I would guess that the anchor will take at least that long,” she said. This is the first large anchor from the Queen Anne’s Revenge to come to the lab.
After it’s cleaned, then the anchor will begin the electrolysis process to remove salts from the metal. Again, that could take years, Daniel said. “For the electrolysis, it really depends on how fast the salts come out. With a cannon, it could take two to three years.”
“It’s a very tedious process and it’s very long, but the outcome is very rewarding,” she said.
After electrolysis, more finite cleaning is performed before a controlled air drying with low humidity – 30 percent or less – so in eastern North Carolina that is usually done in the winter.
After the air drying, a coating of tannic acid is applied to prohibit further corrosion and to give the “aesthetic appeal” for the museum.
“When it comes out, it doesn’t look like it would in the museum. It still has that orange, rusty look,” Daniel said. Final photography and final measurements are completed before it goes to the museum.
Years to go
Chris Southerly was one of two divers in the water May 27. He and Welsh used straps to secure the approximately 1,900 pound anchor to lift bags that were inflated underwater to buoy the anchor about 25 feet to the surface. Southerly, an ECU graduate, is assistant state archaeologist and one of the dive supervisors for the underwater archaeology branch.
The work in the conservation lab, Southerly said, is just as critical to preserving the archaeological treasures as the efforts underwater.
“Archaeology continues in the lab. What we take up as one object, that one object might have 50 to 100 pieces in it what have to be cleaned and stabilized,” Southerly said.
He estimated that conservation of the entire collection of QAR artifacts will take 10 to 15 years. X-rays are taken of the items as they are retrieved from the ocean floor and brought to the lab to prioritize what is conserved first, he said.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge originally was a French slave ship, La Concorde, measuring 90- to 100-feet long with three masts and a crew of 150 to 200. Blackbeard captured La Concorde in 1717 and renamed it before it ran aground in 1718 near what is today Fort Macon State Park.
During the summer, the QAR team announced that they were sure they had Blackbeard’s ship. Through the years, experts and naysayers have gone back and forth.
Charles Ewen, professor of anthropology at ECU and co-editor of “X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy,” said there’s little doubt of the anchor and other artifacts’ origin, including the ship’s bell dated 1705.
“But (the bell) just didn’t have the ship’s name on it. I don’t think there’s any single key clue that will say, ‘Ah! We’ve got it!’ What you have to look at is the amalgamation of the data together and taken as a whole, I just think the conclusion is that this is the Queen Anne’s Revenge is almost inescapable,” Ewen said.
Wilde-Ramsing said scientists from across the state work on the project. He singled out Cape Fear Community College and UNC-W’s research vessels and ECU’s efforts in the project. “The biggest support is from East Carolina University, which houses our conservation lab. Nine-tenths of the work on any archaeology project is in the conservation lab,” he said.
Not only does ECU provide lab space, Wilde-Ramsing said, but also the university provides students and staff from the anthropology department and maritime studies program to help in the lab, along with experts from multiple departments across campus. “Helping us are chemists, biologists, textile experts, geologists and the list just goes on.”
For more about the project, visit www.qaronline.org.
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