Author: Stephen Atkinson, Assistant State Archaeologist
Adapted from "Forty Years Beneath the Waves: Underwater Archaeology in North Carolina" by Richard W. Lawrence.
North Carolina’s initial involvement with historic shipwrecks came about in March 1962, when divers from the United States Navy chartered a local boat to a Civil War shipwreck site. Local lore identified the site as the British-built, blockade runner Modern Greece, which was chased ashore by Union warships in June 1862, and artifacts from the wreck confirmed this identity. The discovery of Modern Greece sparked a new interest in underwater archaeology in the state and led to the establishment of one of the nation’s first state underwater archaeology programs for the protection of North Carolina’s submerged cultural resources. The Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR) grew from the archaeological conservation lab established at Fort Fisher for the stabilization of the artifacts recovered from Modern Greece.
The next few decades brought several turning points for the program, including the management of artifacts from multiple sunken Civil War blockade runners in the 1960s and the discovery of USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras in 1973, which brought North Carolina’s budding underwater archaeology program international attention. Although Monitor was found sixteen miles off Cape Hatteras—well outside the state’s three nautical mile area of responsibility—North Carolina took the lead in protecting the shipwreck.
The 1970s marked a period of tremendous growth for underwater archaeology in our state. Wanting to elevate the program to a more academic level, the Department of Cultural Resources (now DNCR) hosted a cooperative field school in underwater archaeology with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW). From 1974 to 1977, UAB and UNCW staff hosted six-week summer field schools where students were taught the basics of underwater archaeology. From 1979 to 1982, UAB and East Carolina University (ECU) conducted a series of field schools focused on exploring the state’s colonial ports of Bath, Edenton, New Bern, and Beaufort, helping to lay the foundation for what is now ECU’s Program in Maritime Studies.
By the early 1980s, the UAB’s focus shifted from projects to programs. With less concentration on summer field schools, the office became more fully involved with DNCR’s growing resource management responsibilities, a result of federal environmental and historic preservation legislation passed in the 1970s. Chief among those responsibilities was the review of federal undertakings on public lands (including submerged lands) to determine their effect on archaeological resources. The environmental review process, mandated by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, applied to government sponsored projects as well as private development activities that received federal funds or required federal permit.
Locating and recording new sites throughout the state became a priority. The UAB felt that in order to effectively manage a resource it was necessary to define the resource base. That meant having and maintaining the equipment—boats, magnetometer, dive gear, excavation equipment, etc.—necessary to conduct field research in a wide variety of environments. Gradually, the UAB expanded its database of underwater sites. A 1985 paper reported less than 300 documented underwater sites in the state and records on approximately 2,000 historic shipwrecks. By 1989 the UAB had recorded over 400 underwater sites that included prehistoric dugout canoes, colonial sailing ships, dozens of Civil War shipwrecks, and a number of nineteenth and twentieth-century steamboats. Today there are over 1000 recorded underwater sites in North Carolina and the historic shipwrecks database has over 5000 known losses.
The UAB continues to maintain a balance between fieldwork/shipwreck monitoring projects, environmental review and compliance, continuing relationships with federal agencies and universities, and the continued work involving the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Stay tuned for more Submerged NC blogs discussing the field of maritime archaeology and submerged cultural resources throughout our state!
All images by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources