Monday, January 24, 2011

Coast a 'graveyard' of lost ships

Shipwrecks of Delmarva map, National GeoGraphic (full resolution)

From Delmarva

More than 2,000 Delmarva wrecks featured on new map

For beachcombers, Delmarva's waterways are delivering constant reminders of a bygone era.

The artifacts that have washed ashore from long-forgotten shipwrecks -- everything from button covers to Buddha statues -- hold both historical and mythic value to collectors like Bill Winkler of Ocean View.

"The history is more important than a piece of pottery or glass bottles," he said.
"Literally tons, as in 2,000 pounds per ton plural, have been collected over the past 100 years."

Although not all the items can easily be traced to a particular wreck, given the daunting number of ships lost offshore since the days of the first 17th century settlers, Winkler said they all tell a story.

Now, at least part of the region's sunken history is being told through a map of the Shipwrecks of Delmarva commissioned by National Geographic.

Don Shomette, who's written volumes of literature about nautical history, was tasked with culling the 7,000 known shipwrecks to the 2,200 featured on the map.
Based on predictive modeling, he said between 10,000-12,000 wrecks are believed to lie on or beneath the sea floor.

The region's waterways rival the Outer Banks of North Carolina as the "graveyard of lost ships," he said.
"It was an embarrassment of riches," he said.
"There were so many important sites, and a number of them couldn't be included."

The process of selecting the sites to be included took more than a year itself, Shomette said.
He and cartographer Robert Pratt made the selections based on cultural and historical relevance, as well as diversity. Revolutionary War-era privateers exist alongside 1850s paddle steamers, Navy submarines and modern pleasure cruisers.

"We didn't want to put every work boat and every barge -- even though some of them are enormous in size -- in there," Shomette said.

Assembling the list meant pulling from his life's work: decades spent poring over government documents, letters and old newspapers, determining the location and details of wrecks across the region.

Just like Winkler, Shomette said the importance lies in what the wrecks have to tell him.
"Ships at sea have their own laws, customs and ways separate from land society," he said.
And Shomette said most mariners, whose "roots were at sea," left little or no record in the wider world.

Conversely, he said shipwrecks also serve as time capsules of what society was like at the time they were lost.
"A ship is unique," Shomette said. "A ship is a container of the society that built it, sailed it, fought on it and died in it."

Beth Gott, an interpreter at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, said the site's shipwreck displays -- of the Dutch
H.M.S. De Braak, which was captured by the British and capsized off Lewes in 1798, and a wreck discovered during beach replenishment dredging near Roosevelt Inlet in 2004 -- are among the most popular.

"People are fascinated by the story of what happened to it and all the mysteries behind it," she said.

Although an estimated 40,000 artifacts were collected by researchers at the wreck site, Gott said people are still finding items believed to have come from the ship.

"A gentleman just walked in yesterday," she said.
"He found a piece of brown stoneware; he was so excited."

Aside from a few news articles which crop up from time to time, Winkler said most people are unaware of financial and historical wealth beneath the waves.

"The people who know where these shipwrecks are don't really blab about it," he said.
"If I found gold bullion over here, I wouldn't either."

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