Friday, July 1, 2011

Warwick Wreck

The Warwick wreck site.

In the 17th century a hurricane hurled the Warwick, a supply ship filled with cargo, into the cliffs of Castle Harbor. The Warwick succumbed to the Bermudian winds and waves to rest atop a reef just offshore. Nearly 400 years later, the Warwick wreck is the subject of an exciting discovery. Scientists and archeologists from, or associated with, the National Museum of Bermuda have undergone scientific excavation of the site in hopes of gaining insight into 17th century life. On Wednesday we were invited by curator Elena Strong of the National Museum of Bermuda to explore the Warwick wreck in Castle Harbor. We had the privilege of speaking with the archeologists and scientists who spend their days on site discovering and uncovering artifacts from the Warwick wreck. Here are a few things they shared with us.

Curator Elena Strong.

The field of archeology resuscitates the past by uncovering and studying artifacts. Artifacts give scientist clues into what life was like when these objects were used. The scientists and archeologists that are excavating the Warwick are using this wreck to study the daily life of Bermudians and colonists in the 17th century as well as the evolution of ship building techniques.

The Warwick serves as one of countless snapshots in the study of how ship building has changed since the 1600s. Ship-builders progressed from relying on instinct and their eyes to determine ship construction, to using mathematics and, finally, transitioned to the use of computer models in planning and building ships.

Scientists have discovered that the Warwick was built with a distinctive protective layer of pine that covers the more sturdy oak interior layer. This layer of pine was created to be easily replaceable when sea worms (see below) damaged the Pine outer layer of the ship in order to protect the oak layer. This is a technique indicative of the era in which the ship was built.

This piece of timber from the Warwick wreck demonstrates the damage done by the sea worm.

Although the artifacts recovered from the Warwick wreck appear to be primarily utilitarian, a piece of wood can be worth much more than any amount of gold in scientific discovery! For example, archeologists found a ruler believed to be the earliest example of the Gunther scale amidst the Warwick wreck, dating the creation of the instrument and idea to earlier than previously believed. This vastly changes our understanding of 17th century navigation capabilities! When it was recovered from the wreck, this precision instrument just looked like a piece of timber, but after archeologists preformed perfunctory cleaning and priming procedures (all artifacts must be kept in sea water when transported back to the lab and then treated with a cellulose agent which replaces what is lost when the sea water is removed), scientists realized the importance of what they had recovered.

An archeologist cleaning and recording a recovered artifact from the Warwick wreck.

The scientists working on site also explained that the Warwick wreck’s placement has served to date the reef it crashed onto. It is difficult for scientists to determine the age of ocean reefs, however this wreck has allowed scientists to date the 17th century reef below it and compare it to others.

As we dove around the wreck, we saw history living in the present day as sergeant males guarded their eggs amidst the 17th century wreckage. The MSI students will get a chance in the upcoming weeks to visit the wreck to observe, collect and analyze sediment and talk with the individuals working on site. The students will then share their experience with the Waterstart programs and with you through this blog.

I have shared just a few of the things we learned on our wonderful Warwick visit. If you would like to learn more about the Warwick and other 17th century wrecks there will be a free lecture Tuesday 5 July at 6:30 PM in the Main Hall of Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo. This lecture is a part of an extended lecture series.

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