By India Mackinson, Intern, UNC Institute for the Environment, Outer Banks Field Site.
The Pappy’s Lane shipwreck was an enigma from the start. Going into the project, all Dr. Nathan Richards knew of the wreck was from limited oral history, leaving the name, the type of vessel, and the date of the wreck itself a mystery. Dr. Richards and nine East Carolina University graduate students have spent the month of September mapping the site, unfortunately uncovering more questions than answers. The lack of historical leads means it’s time to move to the next phase of the project―dredging.
This is the first project that Dr. Richards has dredged in ten years. Because dredging uncovers more of the wreck, it is exposed to oxygen and other environmental forces that can lead to corrosion and degradation. Even if researchers rebury the exposed wreck, it may take time for anaerobic conditions to re-establish and stop oxidation. The process of dredging also requires physical removal of some parts of the wreck to dig further. Because it causes damage, dredging is only undertaken to answer a specific research question and only when meticulous records of activities (before and after excavation) are made. During excavation, it is important that alterations to the site are documented, allowing for later reconstruction. For this project, that research question is simple yet has proven difficult to answer: what is this ship? If this can be determined, historical and archaeological significance can be explored in detail.
The North Carolina Department of Cultural and Natural Resources Underwater Archaeology Branch, which issued one of the permits for the project, mandated dredging of the stern and three cross-sections of the ship in order to ascertain its function. Last week, dredging began on a cross-section of the wreck following extensive mapping of the area to be disturbed during excavation. After properly anchoring the boat serving as the dredging platform and rolling out the hoses, the graduate students were ready to jump in the water with scuba gear and turn on the pump. The students stay under the water fanning sediment to the dredge head and slowly move down until the hull is exposed, going through layers of sediment and degraded oyster shell, which periodically get stuck in the hoses. As the digging continues, they hope to uncover the shape of the hull and more details about how the ship was constructed. The only emergent information coming from the process so far is the unearthing of an unidentified small mammal skull, but there is still much to expose in this cross-section itself, let alone the others.
The process of dredging to identify a shipwreck is a constant detective story and a balancing act between ideas of preservation. Some decades ago, archaeology began shifting to sampling shipwrecks and in situ preservation, activities which focus on disturbing sites as little as possible, which helps protect the site’s context, as opposed to more extensive excavation or retrieval of the wreck. It also preserves the site for future researchers who are equipped with better tools and knowledge, who may discover new information about the wreck that may have been lost otherwise through the excavation process. By limiting dredging to targeted areas of the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck based on historical records and an understanding of ship construction, most of the area will remain undisturbed while simultaneously opening up the discovery of new information and getting another step closer to finally finding its identity and history.