Aug 12

USS SCORPION Project 2011: Final Week

Friday, August 12, 2011 4:08 PM

1 August, 2011 - 

This begins the final week of excavation on the 2011 USS Scorpion Project! The team will work together this week to continue to investigate the wreck, map the site and recover artifacts. The team was pleased to welcome 7 staff members on site from NHHC Commemorations  and gave them a tour of the barges and explained the details of the archaeological operation.  

 

A diver recovers the starboard cathead.

2 August, 2011-

Today, the archaeology team recovered two important pieces of the ship’s architecture which they believe to be “catheads.” Wooden vessels commonly had a pair of these thick, L-shaped beams incorporated into either side of the bow (one portside, one starboardside). One arm of the “L” projected out over the water and allowed sailors to raise and lower the anchor without causing damage to the side of the ship; the catheads were also strong enough to carry the heavy anchors suspended over the water while the ship was underway. The starboard cathead recovered from the site is in quite good condition and still has the iron components intact…a rare find and an important discovery! 

 
 
 

Archaeologists examine the iron block recovered from the wreck site.

3 August, 2011-

Another interesting find today! The team recovered an iron block from the site; the archaeologists hypothesize that it may have been used as ballast. Sailors often placed heavy material such as stone or metal into the hold of a ship to help stabilize and balance it while underway; the ballast could be moved about the hold as needed to compensate for any changes in the weight distribution of the vessel. Before excavation took place, a magnetometer survey was conducted on the wreck site; several strongly magnetic anomalies were detected…one of which may have been this block! 

 4 August, 2011- 

Today, the UAB dive team spent most of the day near the stern of the vessel measuring and mapping the area. Unlike the bow, the stern is a bit disarticulated with no real structure. When the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla was ordered scuttled, historical accounts are unclear as to how it was actually done. Firsthand accounts from 22 August, 1814 report that the British troops marching on Bladensburg were able to see flames in the distance (presumably from scuttling the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla); this may indicate that rather than puncturing the ships’ hulls to sink the vessels, sailors burned or placed kegs of gunpowder aboard and exploded them to prevent British capture. Although archaeologists have not observed charring on the architecture of the stern, the absence of an intact stern when the bow is so solidly intact, suggests that gunpowder may have been the method used to scuttle the ship. More research will need to be conducted before a solid conclusion is determined. 

Dr. Julie Schablitsky, MSHA, holds the glass pharmaceutical bottle recovered from the wreck site.

 

5 August, 2011 -

 An exciting artifact was recovered today: a small, cylindrical glass bottle with a slightly rounded foot and a flared lip. The bottle is pale green in color, measures approximatly four inches and likely held some type of medicinal liquid or ointment. This bottle is nearly identical to those recovered by Donald Shomette in the original investigation of the wreck in 1980. As flagship of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, USS Scorpion would have likely had a surgeon on board; the bottle will join other previously recovered medical artifacts such as a tooth key and surgical scissors, which are on display in the National Museum of the United States Navy on the Washington Navy Yard. The bottle has been brought back to the Underwater Archaeology & Conservation Lab at the Washington Navy Yard for further analysis and conservation.

A pair of surgical scissors recovered from the wreck site.

 6 August, 2011 -

 More exciting artifacts recovered today! In the morning, the team first recovered a pair of scissors. The scissors appear to be made of an iron alloy and are in remarkably good condition. Because of their small size and very fine, sharp blade, such scissors were likely part of a surgeon’s kit. This pair bears a resemblence to another recovered during the 1980 excavation, however the blades on this pair are straight. Later on in the afternoon, the team recovered a small stoneware jug. One of the most exciting details about the jug is that it was recovered with air inside; which may have been produced as the contents of the jug decomposed over time. The team managed to trap the air within the jug following recovery and may be able to chemically analyze it using a process called gas chromatography to determine the original contents of the container.

 At the end of the day, the team began to backfill the parts of the wreck where they had been working throughout the project. Backfilling refers to the process of redistributing the previously removed sediment back around the wreck. It is important that the site remain covered until the next and final phase of the Scorpion Project; the thick clay and sediment help protect and preserve the ship and its contents beneath the river bed.

 As the 2011 field season draws to a close, UAB sincerely thanks the Naval History & Heritage Command for its continued support of the USS Scorpion Project, and partners Maryland Historical Trust and Maryland State Highways Administration for their hard work and cooperation. UAB also thanks nautical archaeologists Heather Brown and Bradley Krueger, who joined the UAB team for the project, and also our fantastic summer interns who worked on site: Sarah Cahlan, Melissa Campbell, Ryan Frazier, Maria Grenchik, Chris Kelly, John Rees and Marcus Schweinfurth. Thanks to all who came to visit us on site and followed our progress on the blog. Stay tuned for the next phase of the project and to see the artifacts as they progress through the conservation process!

 
 
 
  • Jim Valle

    The recovery of an iron block is very interesting. European navies of that day often used shale, rubble or stones for ballast. The US Navy pioneered the use of iron blocks or pigs for ballast. Such ballast was called “kentledge” and it was much more sanitary than the other types and also much easier to remove when the ship needed to be rummaged or repaired. To find kentledge (if that’s what it is )on a relatively small gunboat is very revealing.