Generally, there are few rewards in concretions – concrete-like lumps of mineral buildup – when they’re pulled from the sea floor.
Unless they’re packed with an unpredictable jumble of Blackbeard’s stuff, such as grenades, cannonballs, navigational instruments, pewter plates, coins and broken gin flasks. And they’re even more intriguing when their contents are in various stages of being examined, cleaned, preserved and documented.
This week, the public will start getting behind-the-scenes access to the state facility where the concretions from the iconic villain’s flagship yield their secrets. There, a car-sized anchor is waiting patiently in a tank of water for cleaning, and cannons packed with gunpowder and iron balls by pirates 300 years ago are gently unloaded. The ship captained by the legendary Edward Teach (or Thatch), fresh from a blockade of Charleston, went aground off Beaufort in 1718.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge conservation lab, on a small satellite campus of East Carolina University a little more than an hour east of Raleigh, will offer regular monthly tours to the public starting Tuesday, plus various other opportunities to visit.
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“We’ve been accumulating so much material down there that we decided it’s time to start showing it to people,” said Stephen R. Claggett, the state archaeologist. “And what they do there is really interesting, all the behind-scenes-stuff that’s so important.”
The lab is where the artifacts, from cannons (one with loops of rope still tied on) and huge anchors to medical instruments and tiny glass beads, are taken after they’re raised from the wreck site. Their encrustations are gently removed, mainly with tiny, air-powered chisels, and the destructive salt leached out of metal, something that takes years for cannons.
It’s also where details about each artifact are meticulously documented, with measurements, drawings and photographs, and where the data about them are compiled.
The wreck was found in 1996 by a private research company just offshore near Beaufort and Atlantic Beach in about 25 feet of water. Archaeologists have been gradually recovering the artifacts from it, and plan to bring up the entire wreck eventually.
The state maritime museum in Beaufort is officially designated as the repository for the ship’s artifacts. It houses a modest number of them now, and eventually it’s expected to expand to accommodate more.
But many of the more than 250,000 artifacts raised so far are still at the lab, some of them already cleaned up and ready for display, but until now out of the public eye. Among them are 16 of the 22 cannons recovered so far, one of the largest collections of cannons ever raised from a single shipwreck. And there are at least eight more on the sea bed that will eventually come to the lab.
The lab is part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources’ Underwater Archaeology Branch. Much of its operating costs, though, and costs for the annual recovery efforts at the wreck site are paid for by a nonprofit group called the Friends of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Entry fees from the tours will go to that group.
About 60 percent of the wreckage has been recovered, and the archaeologists hope to finish the rest – mainly the bow area – in the next couple of years, said Kim Kenyon, one of the conservators who will lead the tours.
From the beginning, the public has been able to get a sense of the recovery via media reports, and it also has been able to see some of the cleaned and preserved artifacts once they go on display. But the biggest part of the Queen Anne’s Revenge project went on behind closed doors, at least until now, Kenyon said.
“We’re such a closed lab, and we wanted to be able to share what goes on here,” she said. “You see the recovery, you see the display, but we wanted to show what happens in between.”
What goes on at the lab is an unusual blend of science, technology, scholarship, art and plain hard work. And it’s a huge undertaking.
Beside the lab there is a warehouse that’s, coincidentally, about the length of the pirate ship. It’s jammed with nearly waist-high tanks containing solutions of water and chemicals that stabilize the condition of large artifacts and concretions until they can be cleaned. Large metal pieces such as the cannons remain in the tank after cleaning and electrical charges are used to drive the salt out of the metal, a process that takes years. Otherwise, when the artifact is dried, the salt would form crystals that would destroy the artifact.
The cannons and other large objects are cleaned in the warehouse. Others are brought into the main lab, which is the size of a large car repair shop, complete with bay doors.
There is also an industrial-size X-ray that can see through the cement-like concretions so that the conservators can tell what’s in them, and how much of the mineral coating they can remove, and where they can remove it, without damaging the artifact, Kenyon said.
Visitors will tour the warehouse, where they can see the largest anchor brought up so far, a 3,000-pound giant, and most of the recovered cannons.
And in the lab, they will see where and how the conservators work, and several arrays of cleaned artifacts will be set out for them to check out, perhaps years before they’re shown in a museum. These include pewter dinnerware, bar shot and cannonballs, navigational instruments and, perhaps the scariest thing on the entire ship, a pipe-like implement used for pirate enemas, perhaps the catalyst for the first utterance of the exclamation “Arrrrr!”
The conservators leading the tours will answer questions and explain the various conservation processes.
“It’s pretty neat stuff,” Claggett said. “I think of it as kind of this cross between a machine shop and of a chemistry lab, where they’re doing all this wizardry with chemicals and electricity.”