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November / December 2004


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Remains of the Day

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division


Remains of the Day
Marine archaeologist Warren Riess recovers history in the centuries-old shipwrecks of the great galleons, schooners and merchant vessels

About the Illustration: The Penobscot Expedition is detailed in a manuscript that is part of the William Faden Map Collection in the Library of Congress. The map, in pen and ink with watercolor, shows Maine's Penobscot River and Bay, with the operations of the English fleet, under Sir George Collyer, against the division of Massachusetts troops acting against Fort Castine, August 1779. River depths are shown, with "full soundings" almost to Bangor.
 

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In a chance meeting on a pier at Maine's Fort William Henry State Park in 1991, two young scallop divers told marine archaeologist Warren Riess about some lead ingots they discovered on the sea floor near Pemaquid Harbor. They had even tested the soft metal with a dive knife, but the bars were too heavy to lift out of the mud. And, unfortunately, the divers were no longer sure of the exact location.

For Riess, news of the ingots was a tantalizing lead; it could have been a real break in solving a more than 350-year-old mystery. For 14 years, the research associate professor of history at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, and scores of colleagues have been looking for the remains of a 17th-century English galleon, the Angel Gabriel, which had gone down in or near the harbor in a hurricane in 1635. If true, the ingots find was a glimmer of hope. Merchant records indicate that the Angel Gabriel had carried lead on previous voyages, although the ship's manifest for her fateful trip to Pemaquid has never been found. Up to that point, Riess and his colleagues had searched in vain.

During subsequent scuba dives, they kept an eye out for lead ingots. They even considered using a metal detector and resurveying areas, but time and money were against them. To this day, the location of the lead and other evidence of the shipwreck remain the stuff of legend.

This much is known: The ship carried supplies and settlers bound for Pemaquid, England's northernmost outpost on the New England coast, Riess says in his 2001 book, Angel Gabriel: The Elusive English Galleon. The ship's arrival, which would have been cause for celebration, turned to tragedy when the vessel was hit by the storm within hours of anchoring in the harbor. Most of the passengers made it to safety, but most of their belongings were lost.

Today, the Angel Gabriel is one of the more than 800 shipwrecks of vessels 40 feet and longer known in Maine waters historical treasures now fading into obscurity. Historians know they're out there, somewhere, but time is running out.

Studying shipwrecks is risky business. Although archaeologists work to preserve the past, says Riess, who has led more than 29 such research projects in the Northeast, the act of retrieving artifacts is, in itself, a destructive act. That's especially true the longer wrecks remain submerged. "You can save the artifacts, but the shipwreck is gone. You have to be very, very careful in what you do," Riess explains. "Imagine reading a collection of letters from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington and having each one fall to dust as you turn a page. You had better be asking a lot of questions."


Riess has spent much of his 30-year career studying archaeological sites on the sea floor. He investigated a Roman merchant vessel in the Mediterranean and directed a study of the Nottingham Galley, a British shipwreck in the Gulf of Maine, raising its nine cannon and other artifacts. For his Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire, he studied the Ronson, an early 18th-century merchant vessel discovered in New York City two blocks from the East River in 1982. He arranged to have the bow of that ship preserved at the Mariners' Museum in Virginia.

Such nuggets of the past are a far cry from typical treasure hunting for riches, but for historians, they are just as exciting. They can reveal details about people's daily lives, the dynamics of trade and the technologies that influenced the balance of power between nations.

Marine archaeology is a young science whose methods were developed in the 1960s and '70s from the work of George Bass, Richard Steffy and others at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M. It was there that Riess completed his master's work, tracking the history of the Angel Gabriel. He also participated in an INA excavation of another colonial-era ship, the Defence, near Stockton Springs on Maine's Penobscot Bay. Many of the thousands of artifacts from the Defence are now in the Maine State Museum.

Riess and his colleagues approach a potential site by asking questions about its historical significance. They look for documents in historical societies and seaports. They talk with locals living near the shipwreck site and, if possible, descendants of the ship's passengers.

Since conservation is important, they go to great lengths to plan for the care of significant artifacts wooden and metal pieces that deteriorate quickly once moved from their saltwater resting places before they even start surveying. More than half the budget for a typical project can be spent on post-excavation treatment.

Once underwater investigation begins, risks range from the many dangers associated with scuba diving to the ultimate frustration failure to find the ship. Underwater visibility at some sites can be near zero, requiring divers to feel their way along the bottom.

High-tech equipment such as a magnetometer and side scan sonar towed through the water can turn up everything from old lobster traps to engine blocks and discarded cable. If shipwreck remains are located, lying in waters as much as 100 feet deep off the Maine coast, divers must lay out a carefully marked plot, just as they would with archaeological digs on land. Underwater excavations can last many years; scientists need to know how finding a ship might illuminate important gaps in their knowledge.

"You have to ask yourself," says Riess, "whether you want to spend the next 10 years of your life on this project."

For Riess, the Angel Gabriel with its cargo of much-needed supplies for an English outpost is one such project. Another is the Penobscot Expedition, a string of shipwrecks in the Penobscot River near Winterport, Maine, that constituted America's worst naval defeat before Pearl Harbor.


In 1779, 40 armed American ships sailed into Penobscot Bay to challenge the British at Castine. When attacked by a British naval squadron, the American fleet, crewed largely by volunteers, turned upriver. The British captured about 10 vessels; to avoid the same fate, sailors scuttled and burned the remaining ships.

Often, in the course of investigations, tips from recreational divers and fishermen can prove invaluable. So it was with the expedition. After Riess began his investigation, a newspaper story about the search led to a call from a local diving instructor.

"He told me, I know where one of the ships you're looking for is located. I'm quite sure.' So we met him down on the pier the next morning, and I rolled out my maps. I showed him what the magnetometer had picked up so far. He saved us a lot of time and effort."

Archaeologists from the U.S. Naval Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology Branch are now working on the expedition. They recently excavated another ship at what is known as the Phinny Site on the Penobscot River.

In the past year, Riess has focused on a question about British colonial history: What led to the dramatic reduction in trade costs during the early 18th century? The question is important because it can help to explain the expansion of European colonial power during this period. The Ronson, the only existing example of a trading vessel from that era, may provide answers.

Named for Howard Ronson, the owner of the modern-day building site on which the old hull was found, the ship was a three-masted ocean trader about 100 feet long, 26 feet across the beam and capable of carrying at least 200 tons. Riess has found documents of five ships built on Chesapeake Bay around 1730 that appear to match the dimensions and age of the Ronson.

Last summer, with assistance from Bowdoin College junior Carrie Atkins, Riess continued his investigation. Using detailed drawings made during the 1982 excavation of the hull, Atkins built a scale model to test a theory about the ship's design. Riess thinks that the British combined the midsection of Dutch merchant ships with English designs for the bow. Computer modeling tests run in 1993 by Walter Wales, a UMaine mechanical engineering student, confirmed that such a ship would have had increased stability in the water, thus requiring fewer crew members to respond to wind shifts.

"Labor was the biggest part of shipping costs," says Riess, "and the larger hold would have carried more cargo."

Ship technology was one factor in the economic development of the growing British empire, says Riess. Equipment and cargo carried on merchant vessels and ships of war also provide glimpses into people's day-to-day lives. Riess recalls the thrill of finding a medicine cabinet on the Defence while he was feeling his way in murky water.

"I remember the feeling when I realized it still had all the bottles two still containing their medicines," he says.

"I think of myself as a historian who uses the archives and archeological information to understand how technology influenced coastal and international trade, shipping and warfare. Those come together in ships as key information (about colonial history)."

by Nick Houtman
November-December, 2004

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