Remains of the Day
Marine archaeologist Warren Riess recovers history in the
centuries-old shipwrecks of the great galleons, schooners and merchant
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
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
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
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
"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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.