Archaeologists plan to raise one of Blackbeard's anchors one last time today, yanking one huge pirate artifact from the sea floor in hopes of getting at some of the tiniest.
By chance, the operation to lift the largest artifact yet recovered from the wreck of the notorious pirate's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, comes just in time to draw attention to a new exhibit about the ship scheduled to open in two weeks at the nearby state maritime museum in Beaufort.
And in kind of springtime buccaneer trifecta, Blackbeard and his ship appear in the latest installment of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise, which just opened.
The pirate, or at least the cartoonish, pop image of him, is widely known. His ship, not so much. Now, though, with millions seeing Johnny Depp's fictional character, Capt. Jack Sparrow, cavort aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge, the ship is suddenly getting more exposure than ever.
The nearly 3,000-pound anchor was among four carried aboard the ship. To safely position it for lifting today, divers used air bags to float it off the bottom Wednesday and shifted it just off the wreck site, which lies off Atlantic Beach.
The anchor was atop a pile of debris, which appears to be the remnants of the middle part of the ship, including its cargo hold, said Mark Wilde-Ramsing, a deputy state archaeologist and director of the Queen Anne's Revenge project.
Next week, Wilde-Ramsing said, researchers hope to dig a small test hole into the side of the pile where the anchor was removed to get a sense of what else might be hidden there. They're particularly keen to find organic material such as seeds and spores that could help detail the pirates' stops in exotic ports.
Seemingly mundane objects like seeds, spoons and tools can be more valuable than gems and doubloons to archaeologists, because they can open new windows into pirate life, which is the whole point of the 14-year-old recovery effort and the museum exhibit.
Originally a slave ship
"This, of anywhere on the site, is our best chance of finding that kind of material," Wilde-Ramsing said. "Those are more things that could give us a richer understanding of life aboard, particularly if any of the seeds weren't from species that also happened to be indigenous to North Carolina."
Queen Anne's Revenge was originally the French slave ship La Concorde that Blackbeard and his band captured in the fall of 1717 in the Caribbean and renamed. It led a four-ship pirate fleet that hunted for prey in the Caribbean over the winter, then moved up the U.S. coast in the spring of 1718.
After blockading Charleston and holding hostages until terrified residents handed over a chest of medicine as ransom, the pirates ran their flagship aground near the inlet leading to Beaufort in what some think was an intentional act by Blackbeard to reduce the size of the fleet. Blackbeard, an Englishman whose real name was thought to be Edward Teach, was killed by Royal Navy sailors in a battle near Ocracoke a few months later.
Queen Anne's Revenge sank in relatively shallow waters. A private shipwreck-hunting company, Florida-based Intersal, found the wreck in 1996, tipped to its identity by the location and the unusual number of cannons aboard. It's the oldest shipwreck ever found in state waters.
Much of the wreck site has been thoroughly scoured by nearly 300 years of tides, storms and currents that would have washed away light organic material. But in a room-size area, another anchor, ballast stones, and several cannons have pinned down hull planks, potentially protecting small, light objects such as seeds.
Already, the area around the pile has yielded animal bones that give evidence of the pirates' fare, including some of the cheapest and least appealing cuts of beef.
Two of the other anchors are slightly larger, but they will remain in the water for now.
Archaeologists and technicians have brought about half the expected 700,000 artifacts from the wreck to the surface. Wilde-Ramsing said about 250,000 of those have been cataloged, and the vast majority, about 220,000, are individual lead shot.
That leaves plenty, though, that tell some of the story of what life aboard a pirate ship was really like. Some of the most interesting items recovered will be part of the Queen Anne's Revenge exhibit that is scheduled to open June 11 at the N.C. Maritime Museum, just a couple of miles from the wreck site.
"It's going to tell the story of what life was like aboard pirate ships generally and the Queen Anne's Revenge in particular - what we do know and what we don't, said Claire Aubel, a spokeswoman for the state maritime museums.
The 1,200-square-foot exhibit will take up a full third of the museum's display space. There will be about 300 artifacts, including buckles and buttons, spoons, bowls and pieces of window glass that may have come from the spacious captain's quarters, Aubel said. There are also pieces of sailcloth and ropes, rare finds from such an old wreck.
There will be some items that don't stray far from the pop culture image of pirates, including cannons and parts of two swords. The displays will include scrap metal found packed into one of the cannons, ready to use as a low-cost technique for doing damage to people or rigging on another ship.
The exhibit also will include material about the extraordinary amount of science that has gone into analyzing artifacts recovered from the wreck site, Aubel said.
"We're incorporating a lot of it into the educational programs we offer both at the museum and in schools," she said. "There's such a math and science component to what they're doing."
Calling for the corsair
The museum has been fielding media calls from around the world about the new exhibit, in part because of renewed pop culture interest in Blackbeard because of the new movie, Aubel said.
"A lot of what people love about pirates is pop culture and just isn't true," she said. "But that's OK if it gets them in so that we can teach them some of the reality about what this most notorious of pirates was really like."
The archaeologists, though, aren't exactly rushing out to see the movie, despite the sudden star turn for the ship some of them have been living and breathing for more than a decade.
Wilde-Ramsing said he'll probably give it a pass. Still, he said, it's helpful to have the famous pirate's name linked to the ship in such a public fashion.
It's unlikely the project will uncover many artifacts that will tell much specifically about Blackbeard, he said, but it can help tell the broader story about the ship's crew, life for sailors generally in those days and the struggles going on in that period with opening up the New World.
"For me, the fact that Blackbeard is in the movie and the Queen Anne's Revenge is in it and linked with Blackbeard, those are good things," he said. "We've often had to explain to people that this isn't the Blackbeard project, it's the Queen Anne's Revenge project, and we really wanted to stick with that because it's really about the ship."
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