Found along the entire North Carolina coastline, beach wrecks spark curiosity in those who find them. They are archaeological sites that may look like intact ships or they may be a single wooden frame or plank. Beach wrecks occur because of unpredictable sand bars, storms, and human error.

G.A. Kohler is located on North Hatteras Beach near Ramp 27
G.A. Kohler is located on North Hatteras Beach near Ramp 27. The remains visible on the beach date to 1933, when the Wilmington-built cargo vessel, ran aground. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 1993)


There are many threats from climate change that harm beach wrecks. Waves moving sand along the beach will expose and bury beach wrecks. This affects the level of moisture within the wreck structure and can cause decay of the wreck. Exposure also leads to salvaging by locals and visitors. With more turbulent weather and increasing waves, more wrecks are being exposed. Wave energy can also move offshore wrecks to the shore and can move exposed wrecks up and down the beach. Heavy wave energy can even tear a beach wreck apart.

The Nansemond Colony Wreck is located on Bodie Island Beach in South Nags Head
The Nansemond Colony Wreck is located on Bodie Island Beach in South Nags Head. It was first observed on the beach in May 1974. The wreck is believed to date to the 19th century. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 1979)


These wrecks are of scientific and historical interest to archaeologists and beachgoers alike. They have sparked public interest in shipwrecks and shipwreck archaeology. Since the 1960s, state archaeologists have made an effort to protect beach wrecks, documenting and marking them with signs. In the 1990s, a systematic approach to tracking beach wrecks began. Wrecks were tagged with contact information so discoverers could report exposed wrecks. This allowed archaeologists to track the exposure and location of wrecks over time.

Shipwreck Altoona, the top image is the wreck 1963 and the bottom showing the wreck in 2009
The wreck of Altoona is located on South Hatteras Beach near the tip of Cape Hatteras, eroding from the beach. It is a 3-masted schooner that ran aground in 1878. The top image is the wreck as seen in 1963 and the bottom image shows the wreck as seen in 2009. (Images by NC Office of State Archaeology, 1963 and 2009)


Currently, the North Carolina beach wreck tagging program is experiencing an evolution. Working with partners across the southeast, the Office of State Archaeology is transitioning to wreck tags with scannable QR codes. By scanning, beachgoers can report a wreck's location to the OSA and learn about the wreck itself. This will allow archaeologists to efficiently track the movement and exposure of known and new discoveries. This data also supports research into currents, wave activity, and coastal erosion.

We will soon be rolling out these new beach wreck tags. Watch Assistant State Archaeologist Stephen Atkinson's webinar about the program so far!


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This material was produced with assistance from the Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.