Sea hunt W
hen a winter storm exposed the wooden skeleton of an ancient ship in the surf near Corolla, state officials called ECU maritime studies professors for help identifying the vessel. Their onsite research discovered that it’s likely the oldest ship ever found in North Carolina, dating from the early 1600s. The methods the professors and students employed to identify and date the wreck illustrate how archaeologists answer questions that written history never will. Learning what trees produced the timbers narrowed its origin most likely to England.
clues indicate the ship probably was constructed in England before 1650 and was used in early commerce with the Jamestown colony.
If the age of the shipwreck was startling, it was no surprise that East Carolina’s program in maritime studies was equipped to help solve this archaeological riddle. When it began in 1981 it was only the second program of its kind in the nation, a bold course of study for a largely unplumbed discipline. It’s still distinctive: now there are just four offering the degrees. This master’s program has garnered international accolades for the breadth of its research The hull was largely held together with wood- and its global reach. Students and faculty have en fasteners known as trunnels, and the framing mapped shipwrecks in the Atlantic and Pacific, inof the ship was made of compass timbers—trees vestigated sunken vessels in Bermuda, recovered with a curve that more easily fit together to sup- ancient canoes from coastal rivers, and analyzed port a ship’s hull. A coin stamped 1603 was artifacts from a 17th-century warship in Sweden. found nearby. To the ECU researchers, these
Just Add Water As part of the university’s Department of History, maritime studies focuses on seminal events in history like wars, migrations and cultural shifts. But whereas historians focus on written records, maritime studies students examine how these events occurred. Usually they occurred on boats, which for most of history has been humanity’s only way of covering large distances. From the hollowed-out tree trunks employed by Native Americans, to the sophisticated galleons used to bring settlers to the New World, human history has been made on the water. Much of that history now lies hidden beneath it. That’s why maritime studies students spend so much time there. During twice-yearly field seasons, they head out to the rivers, lakes and ocean beds that hold the shipwrecks they will investigate. “Diving is simply our office sometimes,” says Bradley Rodgers ’85, a professor in the program who specializes in nautical archaeology. “It can be an ugly office—it’s not all Club Med.”