The vessel believed to have been Blackbeard’s flagship is currently occupied by octopuses, which turn a pale, disgruntled green when nautical archaeologists approach. Black sea bass nip at the excavators’ ears, and moray eels spill out of the mouths of cannons, many of which are still loaded.
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But after nearly 300 years in the North Carolina shallows, the remains of what may be the Queen Anne’s Revenge are surfacing, plank by worm-eaten plank. The site, discovered in 1996, is 25 feet underwater, less than a mile and a half from shore. But long weather delays during diving seasons and uncertain funding have slowed the excavation—this past fall’s expedition was the first since 2008—and it can take years to clean and analyze artifacts corroded beyond recognition. Still, with objects recovered from 50 percent of the site, archaeologists are increasingly confident that the wreck is the infamous frigate that terrorized the Caribbean and once blockaded Charleston, South Carolina, for a week before running aground in June 1718.
“We’re not going to find anything that says ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’ or ‘Blackbeard Was Here,’” says Wendy Welsh, manager of the state-run Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Laboratory in Greenville, North Carolina. “You have to use all these little clues.”
Mike Daniel, the sea captain who first located the ship, introduced me to Welsh. Daniel is a successful treasure hunter who, in 1972, helped find Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas—a gold- and gem-laden Spanish galleon that sank off the Bahamas in 1656. But it was Welsh who most evoked the persona of a pirate, wearing skull and crossbones earrings and a galleon-like charm around her neck. She stormed through the lab, peeling tarps off cannons with such ardor that Blackbeard might have welcomed her aboard.
The heavily corroded cannons—some eight feet long and meant to spit six-pound cannonballs—were soaking in various chemical baths to restore them, a process that takes roughly five years. Some cannons that hadn’t undergone chemical treatment were barely recognizable. When a metal artifact corrodes underwater, sand, seashells and other objects adhere to its sides—which then provide attachment points for marine life, such as barnacles. These outer layers, which grow thicker over time, are known as “concretions.” Before breaking them apart, lab workers try to identify what lies beneath with X-rays, but some objects are undetectable. If technicians aren’t careful while cleaning the concretions with air scribes—a type of mini-jackhammer—valuable pieces can be destroyed, especially small ones.
“Once you touch a glass bead, it shatters, and you’re done,” Welsh says.
“Same thing happens with emeralds,” Daniel says.
“I wouldn’t know,” Welsh says a bit wistfully.