Mark Wilde-Ramsing and Linda Carnes-McNaughton : Archaeological Treasure aboard Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize

Today, we welcome a guest post from Mark Wilde-Ramsing and Linda Carnes-McNaughton, authors of Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize:  The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne’s Revenge, just published by UNC Press.

In 1717, the notorious pirate Blackbeard captured a French slaving vessel off the coast of Martinique and made it his flagship, renaming it Queen Anne’s Revenge. Over the next six months, the heavily armed ship and its crew captured all manner of riches from merchant ships sailing the Caribbean to the Carolinas. But in June 1718, with British authorities closing in, Blackbeard reportedly ran Queen Anne’s Revenge aground just off the coast of what is now North Carolina’s Fort Macon State Park. What went down with the ship remained hidden for centuries, as the legend of Blackbeard continued to swell in the public’s imagination. When divers finally discovered the wreck in 1996, it was immediately heralded as a major find in both maritime archaeology and the history of piracy in the Atlantic. Now the story of Queen Anne’s Revenge and its fearsome captain is revealed in full detail.

Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize is available now in both print and ebook editions.

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Archaeological Treasure aboard Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize

When archaeologists inventory the assemblage of items left behind at the shipwreck site of Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR), Blackbeard’s flagship, they can’t help but notice certain items that are seemingly missing, while others are well-represented. For instance, of all the pirate loot known to have been on the ship after it was used to assault colonial shipping and the port of Charleston, only four silver coins and a small amount of gold dust have been found. Yet, sophisticated and top-end navigational, measuring, and medical instruments have been found in abundance. There is a reason for this overall pattern of artifacts, which can be viewed and interpreted by archaeologists through the lens of what we call “abandonment theory.”

In the case of Queen Anne’s Revenge, we know from historical records that as it sailed into Beaufort Inlet along the North Carolina coast, this large, three-masted, square-rigged ship struck a hidden sand bar, and was ultimately wrecked. The abrupt stranding created a situation that induced a common human reaction driven by the need to vacate the scene and surroundings. This can happen whether it is a burning building today, a prehistoric pueblo in a desiccated landscape, or a ship rendered useless on a sand bar. What is left behind at these sites, to be discovered many years later by a team of archaeologists, is a detectable artifact pattern that details how quickly the abandonment took place, how things were prioritized, and who in the group had special status.

Queen Anne’s Revenge aground in Beaufort Inlet, Bernie Case, illustrator 1999

Queen Anne’s Revenge aground in Beaufort Inlet, Bernie Case, illustrator 1999. (Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources).

So what do the artifacts tell us about the circumstances surrounding the sinking of Queen Anne’s Revenge and the moments immediately after it became stuck and couldn’t be saved? In terms of saving lives and transporting everyone to safety they were successful for archaeologists have found no evidence of human remains. They also found few personal items and serviceable weapons. Everyone aboard appears to have escaped with the shirts on their backs, workable weapons in their hands, and coins in their pockets, although rumor has it that most of the valuables ended up solely in Blackbeard’s purse!

At the QAR site, the many large, heavy artifacts left onboard, such as cannons and anchors, although of some value for remounting on another ship or a fort, were simply too cumbersome to remove given the circumstances. The same goes for the heavy mechanical jacks and grinding stones; these decisions were guided by abandonment behavior known as Zipf’s principle of least-effort. It suggests that one factor in whether something is taken or not, relates to its size and weight (bulkiness). Other items, like the bells that are both beautiful and made of semi-precious metal, may have been too firmly attached to be quickly removed during the abandonment.

Ownership, use-wear, replacement costs, and overall utility all had some bearing on human behaviors and decisions occurring during the hectic period before the ship and its contents slipped beneath the waves and was lost. The portable, attractive bronze signaling cannon for example, could easily have been removed, but instead was left behind, apparently too worn and damaged to bother with. What about all the medical instruments made in France, no doubt property of the French surgeons who were held aboard the ship against their will? Were they not allowed to retrieve and remove their gear or perhaps they didn’t care and were just happy to get off the ship? Was it every man for himself?

Bronze signaling gun with pivot mount.

Bronze signaling gun with pivot mount. (Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources).

There is so much that can be learned about the people, the ship, and all that was taking place aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge based on the archaeological evidence we have found. To tease it out its meaning, a theoretical lens, such as abandonment theory, is particularly useful in terms of determining human reaction as a result of their ship’s loss three centuries ago.

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Mark U. Wilde-Ramsing is the former deputy state archaeologist (underwater) of North Carolina and past director of the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project. Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton is the current program archaeologist and curator at Fort Bragg’s Cultural Resources Management Program.