Pirates? Archaeologists may have discovered the truth about a mysterious shipwreck

ECU maritime studies professor Bradley Rodgers and a team of students have mounted the first scientific exploration of an unidentified shipwreck site in Bermuda.
ECU maritime studies professor Bradley Rodgers and a team of students have mounted the first scientific exploration of an unidentified shipwreck site in Bermuda. National Museum of Bermuda

Pirates discovering pirates.

It's probably fitting that a university whose mascot is a pirate would be part of an expedition to uncover the truth about a mysterious pirate ship.

East Carolina University archaeologists may have discovered a 400-year-old pirate ship in Bermuda, the university announced in a May 17 news release.

ECU archaeologists working alongside the National Museum of Bermuda say they could be one step closer to connecting an unidentified shipwreck site to the nearly 400-year-old story of a stranded Dutch privateer, or pirate ship.

The remains of the ship are well known to locals, but their origins are not.

Now new evidence could shed light on the mystery.

Evidence suggests the wooden sailing ship previously thought lost was actually salvaged and its valuable goods transported to shore.

The fifth governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, described the ship as a Dutch pinnace traveling from the Caribbean, according to ECU researchers. A pinnace is typically a small boat with sails or oars, forming part of the equipment of a warship, merchant ship or other large vessel.

Students work to map the wreck site. ECU Program in Maritime Studies

The Dutch pinnace was reportedly grounded on the rocks of Bermuda's western reef in 1619. Islanders rescued the Dutch and English crew of down-on-their-luck buccaneers, and they were repatriated within a year.

The ship itself was reportedly left to wind and weather, disappearing with the next Atlantic-borne storm.

But now archaeologists say Bermudians may have secretly moved the ship's cargo ashore, then floated the ship off the reef, secreting it in a shallow bay in order to salvage weapons, lumber and hardware — essential commodities for an isolated, but burgeoning colony.

The shipwreck site may represent one of the earliest colonial-built Dutch vessels discovered in the Americas, and the earliest and possibly only fully archaeologically documented privateer/pirate vessel, according to Bradley Rodgers, ECU professor of maritime studies.

In 2008, Rodgers examined the wreck in the quiet harbor at the west end of the island — just a short distance from the Dutch pinnace's last known position on the reef.

So in May 2017, he returned to the island with a team from ECU, along with help from the museum, and began the first scientific exploration of the site.

The crew archaeologically examined, mapped and recorded the exposed sections of the wreck.

“The ship remains appear to be early and significant, and archaeological evidence demonstrates unmistakable traits of northern Dutch design, techniques that have not been used in four centuries,” Rodgers said.

It wasn't uncommon in the 17th century to salvage ships on the west end of the island — out of sight of customs officials on the east end — to avoid taxes or levies on the cargo, Rodgers said.

“Salvage marks are plentiful on the disarticulated wreck, and though many of the fasteners and planks have been removed, many of the timber remains are in great condition,” he said.

The team has documented enough of the shipwreck site to identify ship construction techniques matching those described in 17th century Dutch documents.

Students record timbers on the site of an unidentified shipwreck site in Bermuda. National Museum of Bermuda

The wood of the ship also have been identified as greenheart, a New World timber historically harvested in Dutch trading territories in South America.

The few artifacts from the shipwreck reflect Dutch and northern European heritage from the early 17th century.

But there's still a lot of work to be done analyzing the shipwreck.

It will take “extensive archival research, archaeological analysis and funding to fully verify the find, and it is one of the more confusing wreck sites we have ever studied — it has been completely taken apart down to the fastenings.”

Study of the shipwreck site will continue, the university said, and could reveal more details about life in the 17th century, shipwrecking practices, how distressed ships were salvaged and the early settlement history of Bermuda.

“The economics and impact of salvage in the early settlement of Bermuda has not yet fully been explored by academics and can provide a fascinating window into how the first Bermudians survived on an isolated island,” said Elena Strong, NMB executive director.

“Bermuda’s rich underwater cultural heritage, which is protected by law, is not only a valuable cultural tourism asset, but also comprises a tangible archive of the interaction of African, American and European cultures over five centuries. Over the past 40 years, research on these wrecks has yielded considerable data informing historical narratives about the lives of the people who depended on these vessels to ferry goods and people to various ports along the Atlantic littoral.”

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