Rare Artifact Found In Surf

OCEAN CITY – A large
section of what is likely a fairly ancient wooden vessel was discovered in the
surf at 43rd Street this week and now awaits its fate in a
town-owned storage facility in West Ocean City as state historians and maritime
archaeologists attempt to date it and perhaps discover from whence it came.

The roughly 25-foot
long, L-shaped artifact was first discovered in the surf by swimmers in the 43rd Street
area on Monday. Ocean City Beach Patrol staffers tried to remove the unknown
object from the water, but quickly realized it was something much larger than
they were capable of moving. The town’s Public Works department was called in
and was eventually able to haul the giant piece of history from a bygone era
from the water using a front-end loader and other equipment.

“People were reporting
to us they kept bumping into something in the water below the surface,” said
Beach Patrol Lieutenant Ward Kovacs. “The lifeguards tried to get it out, but
they knew right away it was something beyond the scope of their abilities.”

Only after Public Works
employees were successful in dragging the mystery object from the water and
onto the beach did it become clear it was likely some large part of a vessel
shipwrecked or destroyed years ago. The longest section is about 25-feet long
with a shorter section attached by treenails, or wooden pegs used in ship
building in the 18th century, creating an L-shaped artifact.
Realizing it could be a rare archaeological find, Public Works crews carefully
removed the artifact from the beach and transported it to a town-owned facility
on Keyser Point in West
Ocean City
where it’s being preserved and stored while state scientists do their research.

“It appears to be a keel
and stern portion of a ship and I’ve been told it appears to be dated around
1850,” said Public Works Director Hal Adkins. “We’ve got it covered in an
effort to preserve and keep it from drying out. We’ve been told if it dries
out, it will likely start to disintegrate.”

On Tuesday, officials
from the Maryland Historical Trust Office of Archaeology, led by state maritime
archaeologist Susan Langley, arrived at the West Ocean City site to begin unraveling the
mystery behind the rare find. While the investigation continues, there are
certain elements of the find that can help date it and others that can rule
certain things out.

For example, Langley said it was a
stern post with dead wood attached, suggesting it was likely from the mid-18th
century. The longest section is not the actual keel, but dead wood attached to
the keel to provide additional weight for the vessel. Adding dead wood to a
keel for additional weight was a practice used in ship building in the 1800s,
according to Langley.

Perhaps the most significant
part of the find is the metal fish plate attached to the stern post. Through
her research, Langley
was able to determine similar fish plates were first used on vessels as early
as 1805, but she believes this particular fish plate dates back to about 1850
or even later.

“It will probably be
impossible to pinpoint the exact age of this vessel, but there are certain
educated assumptions that can be made based on the evidence,” she said. “It’s
still early, but I would place this vessel around 1850 or maybe even post-Civil

Langley said there were other key indicators used in
dating the artifact. For example, treenails (pronounced trunnels), which are
wooden pegs used in ship building in the 18th century, are
lathe-turned, meaning they are likely post-Industrial Revolution. Prior to the
advent of power lathes, treenails and other wooden parts used in ship building
were hand carved or cut with a saw.

Noticed immediately when
the artifact was pulled from the ocean were Roman numerals carved into the stern
post from four to seven, or IIII to VII, on the actual wood. Some on the beach
initially believed the carved Roman numerals were an indication of the age of
the vessel, and one man actually told OCBP members he thought the markings
suggested the vessel dated back to 1537, but Langley explained the carved Roman
numerals were depth markings on the stern post used when the vessel was being
loaded to determine how low it was sitting in the water.

Langley and her crew
were, at first, thought the use of the Roman numeral four carved as IIII as
opposed to the widely accepted IV could be used to pinpoint the age of the
vessel, but it didn’t prove to be helpful. The archaeologists discovered from
their research that IIII and IV were used interchangeably for centuries even
dating back to Roman times.

“There was nothing to be
gained from the markings in terms of determining the age,” she said. “There is
no rhyme or reason for the use of one or the other.”

Although a variety of
elements of the artifact has allowed researchers to date the vessel from the
mid- to late 18th century, there is little hope for determining what
its name was, where it came from and what it was doing off the coast. Langley said the size of
the piece found suggests it was likely a merchant vessel carrying cargo and not
a fishing vessel. She also said the lack of copper plating anywhere on the
artifact suggests it was not a military vessel. “It was a fairly large vessel,”
she said.

Langley said the piece was in fairly pristine condition
given its age, suggesting it has likely been buried under the sea floor for a
long time.

“There are no worm
borings or barnacle growth, meaning it was fairly deeply buried,” she said. “It
was certainly buried below oxygen level because there is no evidence of any
critters getting to it.”

For the same reason, it
must have been unearthed fairly recently after perhaps a century or more under
the sea floor, but it is unlikely there is more of the vessel off the coast in
the immediate area of where it was found this week.

“There is no way of

knowing where it came from or where the rest of it is,” said Langley. “It could have been unearthed by a

storm or some dredging activity and drifted down the coast. There’s a strong
north-south drift off the coast in the mid-Atlantic region, so the rest of it,
if it’s still preserved, could be off of Delaware or even further north. Lord
knows where it came from, but it was buried until fairly recently.”

For now, the artifact

remains carefully stored at the town-owned facility in West Ocean City where the research continues. Langley said it would deteriorate rather quickly when

subjected to the elements, but the artifact could find a home for display,
perhaps at the Ocean
City Lifesaving
Museum at the end of the

“I’ve already had some
discussion with [Ocean City Life-saving
Station Museum
Curator] Sue Hurley at the museum and we wouldn’t have any objection to
displaying it as long as it lasts,” said Langley.
“It would also make a wonderful teaching piece, so it might have some value for
a short time anyway.”

Langley said because so much is not known about the vessel
or its origins, it wouldn’t be practical to attempt to preserve it long term.
“To truly conserve it would cost a lot of money,” she said. “It’s a wonderful
find, but it just wouldn’t be worth it.”