By Jack Irion, Marine Archaeologist, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
December 10, 2017
Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017. Download larger version (mp4, 40.1 MB).
Dive 07 of the Okeanos Explorer Gulf of Mexico 2017 expedition was at an unknown shipwreck identified by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management simply as “ID Number 15377.”
The dive started as Deep Discoverer (D2) descended to a featureless silty bottom at more than 700 meters (2,296 feet) depth and proceeded to navigate to the shipwreck, approaching the bow of the shipwreck first.
We observed that the wreck has a wooden hull, clad in copper sheets (used to provide anti-fouling protection), and fastened in part by copper bolts. The bolts appear to have clench rings or forelocks, a feature of heavy-built wooden ships of the early to mid-19th century. The copper sheathing was applied using copper tacks, which were visible in areas where the hull planking had been consumed by marine organisms. None of the hull above the water line of the ship where the copper sheathing ended has survived. The upper edge of sheathing shows no sign of damage through collision, fire, or slow collapse of the upper works after sinking. The copper sheathing at the bow follows the traditional 19th century pattern for sheathing with the copper conforming to the swell of the bow.
The surviving portion of the hull below the waterline is approximately 32 meters (105 feet) long by 10 meters (33 feet) wide. Lead draft marks were seen tacked to the stem post at what appeared to be one-foot intervals, with the Arabic number “12” at the mudline and the number “13” above it. This indicates that approximately 3.81 meters (12.5 feet) of the hull lies beneath the sediment. This would incorporate the entire hold of the vessel as well as a possible lower deck. Surviving timber and longer bolts at the edge of the sheathing line suggest that this was the level of a deck that may have in part collapsed into the hold during the transformation of the sunken ship into a shipwreck site.
A hole observed above the “13” that penetrates the stem may have marked where the bowsprit was gammoned. Just aft of the stem posts are dual lead hawse pipes on both the starboard and port side, through which the anchor cables would have run. A largely buried anchor was observed outboard of the starboard bow where it would have been catted, with one fluke and the outline of the iron stock exposed.
After imaging the bow, D2 began a slow circuit down the starboard side of the vessel, documenting a large sheet anchor stowed on deck amidships, remnants of a suction bilge pump with cast-iron flywheels, and a ship’s cast-iron stove. The remains of the pump lie around a circular feature that we believe is the outline of the ship’s foremast, which while consumed by marine organisms, is delineated by corrosion byproduct.
Continuing further aft, we observed remains of chain plates which supported the standing rigging for the foremast on both the port and starboard sides. Their positioning and number indicate that this was likely a three-masted vessel with either a ship or bark rig.
We noted many small artifacts, including what is believed to be a stoneware bottle; a basin and pitcher; numerous hand-blown wine, liquor, and beer bottles; and a Transferware cup. Also noted in the stern quarter were a number of coarseware ceramic storage jars, including an unusual yellow-glazed jug with four horizontal loop handles, similar to ones seen on other wrecks in the Gulf and a narrow neck. Some remarkably fragile artifacts also survive, such as multiple stemmed ale flutes.
In general, it seems likely based on our preliminary analysis of the artifacts, the hull form, fasteners, and rigging elements, that the ship likely post-dates 1830 to perhaps mid-century. It likely was a square-rigged ship with three masts and was a heavily constructed merchant ship, built for long ocean voyages and carrying bulk cargo; its builders valued cargo capacity over speed.