The ocean is perhaps the planet’s last great frontier. For one student, a research trip to better understand a shipwreck near Bermuda provided an opportunity for exploration and adventure.
by Marlene Aydlette ’12
The story of this particular mystery ship lost at sea is anything but established: Maybe it was a pirate ship gunned down by a money-hungry opponent or perhaps a merchant ship swallowed up by an angry Poseidon. But while the wreck itself and general theories about its cause might be enough to satisfy the curiosity of most people, there is a small group of individuals who desire to know more. The epic battle or relentless storm that brought the ship down may be intriguing in and of itself, but the secrets that went down with the ship are of greater interest to underwater archaeologists. As I’ve learned, the ocean can be selfish and daunting. It holds more secrets than we ever cared to imagine.
I began diving with my father and younger brother in my later high school years, when we’d take occasional weekend trips to Florida. The colors of the coral and different species of fish immediately sent me into a childlike state of wonder about this world so close by, yet so narrowly understood. I loved and cherished these trips, and the underwater world never stopped amazing me. It wasn’t until I really discovered my love of history that I realized that, while the sea had a way of silencing the world above, it also had a way of subduing it. My favorite movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, puts it best: “What the sea will take is what the sea will have.”
While studying at the College, I was anything but excited when it came to academics. Because I spent my first two years of college knocking out mandatory courses, I was less than thrilled about school. My arbitrary decision to take an introductory anthropology class, however, turned all of my apathy on its head. Coming from a high school with a graduating class of 18, I often felt nameless and overwhelmed in my freshman-dominated 101 courses, but this class was different. Anthropology, as described by Professor John Rashford, is the study of man as a sociocultural being and animal. Even this definition got my brain working. While it’s obvious to most people that we are highly social creatures – creating, developing and even destroying cultures – it’s much less convenient for our egos to recognize that we’re still animals as well. What I believe to be the unifying factor in these two aspects of our humanity is an undying and overwhelming desire for exploration.
As I learned in that class, humans evolved as foragers. Early on, we followed the food supply and never stayed anywhere long enough to call it home. This way of life gave room for the expansion of our species. As we became more populous, we began spreading even farther in order to make way for more growth. Our technological developments certainly have aided in satisfying our explorative tendencies, but these developments did not come without risk. While we had long practiced harnessing the earth with developments such as agriculture and horticulture, learning the ways of the sea would take much more time and require much more fearlessness.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, the seafaring business had progressed immensely in its ship-building technology, but weather and unknown territory still posed threats to explorers. One location notorious for taking down vessels was the small, volcanic island known today as Bermuda. During the development of the New World, this curious little sliver of land, located less than 700 miles off the coast of North Carolina, knocked out countless ships with its shallow reefs and infamous storms.
While many stories surround the island’s initial discovery, all were by accident and none resulted in its immediate settlement due in large part to the danger involved in even getting to shore. It’s as if the shallow reef created an underwater booby trap: tempting you to go to the islands, only to swallow you whole. But while the adventure of the crews aboard those unfortunate ships may have ended there, the vessels and whatever was aboard still lie upon the ocean floor. It wasn’t until quite recently that we’ve been able to rediscover these vessels, and this new means of underwater exploration has provided us with answers to questions we never even dreamed of asking. And, as I found out, the ocean is the ultimate lost-and-found.
With not a single idea of what this adventure would entail, I applied in the summer of 2012 to the underwater archaeology program through the University of Rhode Island. For me, any field school involving “Bermuda” and “underwater” sounded good enough. I spent the month before departure working on acquiring my research-diver certification, which is required to work on a documented shipwreck.
When we arrived in Sandy Parrish, Bermuda, our professor and field guide Rod Mather gave us the details about our assigned wreck. It had been located and documented some time ago by Mather himself, but little was known about where it came from or how old it was. Because we had no name for it, we referred to it as the “Iron Plate Wreck,” after the large amount of iron sheets the ship was apparently carrying at the time of its demise.
This shipwreck was particularly interesting because, while many of the artifacts we located included 19th-century items like the machine-rolled iron and metal nails, still much of the ship’s construction seemed older to me. The more wooden planks we uncovered from the sand, the more hand-carved markings I began noticing in the wood. Carvings by hand are typical of much older ship-construction techniques, as early as the 1600s, and it didn’t seem to go with the other newer materials found elsewhere on the vessel’s skeleton. I pointed this out to our team, but the conflicting evidence only made the job more maddening. There was quite a bit of arguing and debating in our meeting room as we drew up scaled maps of the planks we’d measured underwater. More and more confusing finds showed up on the wreck as we got deeper into the sand each day. We were finding very few answers and unearthing many more questions.
It was not until the last day of work that we came to a conclusion. When we began our work in Bermuda, Mather explained to us that in order to save time and materials, many merchants would continually repair old, worn-out ships. Rather than spend money and precious voyage time waiting for the construction of a new vessel, they would patch up the holes and send it off for “one last voyage.” All too often, the call to lay the ship to rest didn’t come soon enough. Our ship was most likely originally constructed in the late 17th century and continually repatched until it fell victim to a storm in the 1800s, making it about 200 years old at the time of the wreck.
But loads of questions remain about the Iron Plate Wreck, and many will remain unanswerable despite continuous excavation. While future underwater archaeologists will unearth as much of its history as they can, so much of it has already been stolen by the ocean’s currents or hidden beneath coral overgrowth. As I mentioned before, “What the sea will take is what the sea will have.”
Our overwhelming hunger for exploration has led to great triumphs for humanity. And as we develop more advanced ways to explore our planet, we’re discovering more than we expected about ourselves. The story of this ship’s voyage does not end with its demise at sea – it simply starts a new chapter for those daring enough to explore further.
- Marlene Aydlette ’12 graduated in December with a degree in anthropology.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella