DIGGING FOR ANSWERS: Lighthouse team diving on newly discovered shipwreck

Kara Wallace, a student in the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program’s underwater archaeology field school, enters the water to survey the shipwreck.

Not far off the coast of St. Augustine, beneath the ocean’s swells, lie the remnants of a newly discovered shipwreck thought to be more than 200 years old.


Chuck Meide, director of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, or LAMP, thinks the ship was most likely a merchant ship that went down in the difficult-to-navigate waters just off the city sometime between 1750 and 1800.

“We have a few diagnostic artifacts,” Meide explained aboard the research vessel Roper on Friday morning.

With the sun just peeking over the dunes of Salt Run, Meide, along with LAMP colleagues Brendan Burke and Sam Turner, were headed out to the site with about 10 college students and supervisors from the summer’s field school class to do some work.

As Roper made the turn east from Salt Run and poked her bow into the choppy waters of St. Augustine’s inlet, Meide described a little of what he and the students already know about the wreck they all call the “Anniversary wreck.”

It got the name because they discovered it during the city’s 450th anniversary celebration — a time that, Meide explained, LAMP was anxious to make a discovery significant to the city it calls home.

And if early indications are anything to go by, Anniversary — which, a news release claims, could turn out to be the oldest merchant ship discovered off Northeast Florida — may be just that.

“I never thought we’d find something as exciting as the Storm wreck,” Meide said, comparing what they are working on now to a sunken British refugee vessel that LAMP discovered in 2009 and excavated from 2010 to 2015.

Although they are fairly sure they are diving on a merchant ship, Meide said he reserves the right to change his mind.

“Really this is pretty early, this our second season of digging,” he said. “The Storm wreck, it took three years of digging before we really knew what that ship was.”

In that case it was military buttons, found amid the ship’s ruins, that pointed the way.

In just one full season of excavation on Anniversary, divers have already found pewter plates, shoe buckles, cut stone, bricks, broken pottery, a wooden knife handle, coal and a lot of cauldrons.

The cauldrons, found together in one of the earliest excavation spots, are among the items that Meide kept mentioning when discussing his working theory of a merchant ship.

“It’s a pretty small area and inside that area we found 28 cauldrons,” he explained. “So that’s a ton of cargo.”

“There’s no way you need that many cauldrons unless you are shipping cauldrons,” he said later.

That, along with the patterns found on some of the pewter artifacts, have led him and the team to place the ship in the last half of the 18th century.

“The more we dig and the more artifacts we have to work with, we should be able to narrow that date range down,” he said.

Students and supervisors (most of them returning students themselves) didn’t bring up any artifacts Friday morning, but they had plenty of work to do beneath the water’s surface.

The first two-person team set to work measuring elevations of the site to give other team members an idea of how deep they’ve dug and how deep they locate artifacts. Another team scanned an area with a metal detector and yet another drove clear PVC pipes into the sandy bottom to pull up core samples and give the archaeologists an idea of the site’s “stratigraphy.”

Meide said that’s important to learning the site’s history and getting an idea of how the ocean’s bottom may have changed over time.

The cores brought up Friday were fairly uniform, without the distinct bands that could be seen in last year’s samples. He and the others hypothesized that could be because Hurricane Matthew cleared the site completely before dumping another layer over the top of it.

Clearing off most of what the ocean dumps on the site from year to year is usually what the teams have to focus on in the first weeks of the diving season. Once that task is completed, they can turn their attention to locating and retrieving artifacts.

The students, who this year have come from schools as far away as California and Colorado, including one international student from Saudi Arabia, have been in town since June 26 and will work with Meide and his team until July 21.

During the first week of the four-week course, Meide and the others put them through what he calls “archaeology boot camp” with a lot of training dives and underwater obstacle courses in a pool at a local dive shop and additional dives in one of the many inland springs.

By the second week, they are aboard Roper (owned by David Howe, described in a news release as a friend of the St. Augustine Lighthouse &Maritime Museum).

Meide clearly enjoys the work that was keeping him busy Friday as he talked with colleagues and students, giving them tips and talking with them about how to troubleshoot problems they were likely to encounter under water.

“We are really forging a team out of these kids,” he said earlier as Roper was approaching the site.

True to his word, once the research vessel was secured over the wreck, the students set to work, dividing up tasks and prepping gear including the “hookah” — a gas powered pump that supplies air to many of the divers, who wear traditional scuba gear only as backup. Others dove with the benefit of scuba gear alone.

As the season progresses and the students leave, Meide and his team will continue to dive the site. Subsequent summers will bring more students, more work and more dives.

At some point along the way, the team expects they will be able to definitively say they are dealing with a merchant ship and get a better idea of the year it went down.

Once they know that, they will be able to realize the full significance of their find.

A merchant ship, Meide explained, provides a unique view into the city and time period it served. By studying the items found aboard, archaeologists can better understand the economics of the time and gain some insight into what was in demand among those living in the area.

That’s different, Meide said, than items found in archaeological sites on land, which, while valuable, are often excavations of discarded objects.

“We’re seeing it in its original context,” Meide said of the ship’s cargo.

“This will be a unique resource for people who want to understand St. Augustine.”


LAMP is part of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. For information call 829-0745 or go towww.staugustinelighthouse.org

About LAMP

LAMP is part of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. Call 829-0745 or go to staugustinelighthouse.org