Diving into the Past

A beach replenishment project in Lewes put scores of people in contact with a real shipwreck--and a good look at history.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Dan Griffith, the former director of the Lewes Maritime Archeological Project, displays artifacts recovered from the Severn, a British ship that sunk off the coast of Lewes in 1774. Photograph by Keith Mosher www.kamproductions.com

 

 

When an Army Corps of Engineers dredge hit a sunken 18th-century shipwreck in Delaware Bay while replenishing Lewes Beach in 2004, it sent 250-year-old debris onto the sand and waves of excitement across the country.

It wasn’t just the local beachcombers stumbling upon hundreds of artifacts who knew something significant had happened. The discoveries captured the imaginations of archaeologists, treasure hunters and history enthusiasts all over the world.

Dan Griffith, who once served as Delaware’s historic preservation officer and later became the director of the Lewes Maritime Archaeology Project, was no less than spellbound when he learned what had happened.

While doing a public presentation in October 2004 on the state’s previous pride-and-joy shipwreck, the HMB DeBraak, Griffith got a big surprise. News Journal reporter Molly Murray of Lewes brought a shoebox of curious items she’d picked up at Roosevelt Inlet. Griffith saw right away they weren’t the usual beachcombing finds. In fact, they looked like they could date to Colonial times.

“I said ‘These are pretty cool, Molly. Where did you get that?’ And then I immediately sent a crew out to report back to me,” Griffith says.

Finding a Colonial junk yard isn’t something that happens every day. It’s what historians live for. But it’s also something rogue treasure hunters can decimate in search of valuable items, a tragedy for archaeological research. So Griffith had to act fast.

“At the same time we were collecting artifacts on the beach, I was talking to the Army Corps of Engineers,” Griffith says. “We didn’t know what the offshore source was. We needed to learn how much was hit by the dredges, how much was on the beach.”

The first thing he did was close Lewes Beach at Roosevelt Inlet to control the loss of artifacts. Dozens of volunteers helped sift through yards of replenished sand to recover artifacts. Not only did they find ceramic and glass, but shoe and belt buckles, pieces of chamber pots, beads—even pewter toy soldiers that were actually parts of war instruction kits. There were pieces of products state archivists didn’t even know had made it to the colonies in the 18th century.

At first it was believed the items came from past land colonists and that the bay had eventually claimed the debris. Makers’ marks on clay pipes and other items dated the debris between 1770 and 1776. Army Corps of Engineers contract divers finally discovered the source of the debris in February 2005.

“We didn’t know until April how much [debris] was left,” Griffith says. “They showed that 20 percent was damaged and dredged up onto the beach. The dredge basically took part of the archaeological wreck through a blender and threw it a mile and a half. Then bulldozers spread it all over the beach.”

To date, 45,000 pieces have been collected from 199 donors and two dives. All of it had to be cleaned, cataloged and, when possible, reconstructed.

The next phase of collection meant going back to the source. The project demanded an experienced team. Diving at Roosevelt Inlet is like swimming through mud. Rapid currents create constant clouds of silt and murk, limiting visibility to a few inches. Despite the conditions, divers created a steel grid with one-foot squares that corresponded electronically with a scale map of the wreck, which allowed divers to pinpoint the location of each artifact.

The original dredging created a 400-square-foot trench at the south end, which made up about 20 percent of the wreck site. In September the divers studied several 300-square-foot trenches along the ship, which equaled another 20 percent of the total site. That meant an astounding 60 percent of the project was yet to be mined.

During the work divers uncovered two full utility jugs, a ceramic mineral water bottle, a few unused mill stones and, astoundingly, a nearly whole hand-painted plate, in addition to tens of thousands of fragments. “I think we’ve answered some of our significant questions right here,” Griffith says.

By the size of the debris site, the project team knew the general class of vessel. Through research in local archives and overseas, Griffith’s team was able to determine the ship’s identity. “We knew it was from between 1770 and 1776. We had a list of candidate vessels from reports of ships lost in Philadelphia waters,” Griffith says.

The best candidate was the Severn, a 200-ton ship with more than 100 tons of cargo capacity. Built in Bristol, England, in the mid-1700s, the Severn was no small sloop. It was a major transatlantic vessel. It turned out the wreck was the only British ship-class commercial vessel located and investigated in or near Britain’s American colonies.

The May 11, 1774, edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette reported the Severn took on water due to an unexpected nor’easter and was feared lost on May 4.

The Severn wreck is a mere 15 feet underwater, an indication that the vessel’s captain hightailed it to the nearest port when it became apparent the ship wouldn’t weather the storm. Because many Delaware Bay pilots made their homes in Lewes, the area was a well-known anchorage. “I think the captain intentionally grounded it because reports say all the crew was saved,” Griffith says.

The utilitarian nature and immensity of the Severn’s cargo told the story of young America’s purpose in the colonial British empire. It also illustrated Lewes’ prominence in the colonial economy.

The Severn was loaded with manufactured goods typical of the period. “The captain of the Severn reported he had too much glass and earthenware he could not sell,” Griffith says. Around the same time, frustration with British rule was building. In response to the Boston Tea Party, the British passed the Boston Port Act of 1774 and redirected a lot of trade to other ports. Philadelphia, upriver from the Severn wreck, was one of the those that benefited.

“Philadelphia was the capital and the largest import and export center in the colonies,” Griffith says. “The significance of Delaware is by the nature of the Delaware Bay as the gateway to the largest American port in the British colonies.”

Most colonial taxes were imposed on British produced goods. Consequently, there was some indication that colonists boycotted British-made wares to counter the perceived injustice. The Severn’s cargo was a perfect illustration of the ways merchants reacted to the shifting market and skirted British tariffs by transporting comparable untaxed Dutch and German goods. Recovered artifacts reflect considerable counts of Dutch spirits bottles and common tableware, as well as German mineral water bottles and crockery.

“There are all kinds of socioeconomic stories that this wreck is a part of,” Griffith says. “Lewes was part of a national redistribution network.”

Lewes Maritime Archeology Project team members aren’t the only ones who experienced the Severn artifacts. There was a community of people who regularly scoured the beach since it reopened in 2005, some even driving from Pennsylvania for no other reason than to hunt for treasure at the Roosevelt Inlet.

Jim and Wanda Berrigan have owned property on Pilottown Road for nearly 30 years. “We had neighbors who found things and told us about it. We went out there about a week before it went public,” Jim Berrigan recalls. “We found pieces of pipe stems, mostly Chinaware with blue designs, some with yellow flowers, green glass pieces, brown jug handles and tea cup handles.”

The couple was hooked. “Now we try to walk every Saturday and Sunday out there. Of course, it’s much more fun October to March, when no one else is out there,” Berrigan says

The wonder of finding artifacts is the personal connection with history it creates. “The real thrill is knowing you’re the first person to lay hands on an item that’s been hidden for nearly 250 years,” Berrigan says. “I find a piece and start thinking about how life was then. I just stand there thinking about what’s transpired over the last 250 years.”

The Lewes Maritime Archaeological Project ended with the closing of the Lewes lab April 13, 2007. Griffith hopes to see an extension of that personal connection with the wreck to a wider audience. A special exhibit is being developed at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes. Other state museums may also host exhibits or presentations. But the Berrigans say nothing will beat finding brightly painted pieces of 250-year-old China washing up at their feet.

Even after more than two years combing Lewes Beach for little historic gems, the couple is nowhere near finished. “It’s addictive,” Berrigan says. “It’s like being a kid on an Easter egg hunt two or three times a week. It’s just as exciting now as it was the first time we went out there and found a piece.”

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View map »


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More information

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View map »


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February 3 – 25 Group Show featuring still life paintings in oil by Rosemary Castiglioni; gestural animal paintings by Gay Freeborn; and plein air landscapes from Zion National Park,...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Newark, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-9111
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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society announces the next play in the exciting series of National Theatre Live screenings. National Theatre Live is a groundbreaking project that presents the best of...

Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
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Tutto Fresco has live entertainment every Friday night from 6:30–9:30 p.m. Call for details. http://tuttofrescode.com/

Where:
Tutto Fresco
514 Philadelphia Pike
Wilmington, DE  19809
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Meeting every Friday, Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, 640 s. State Street, Dover, 7:30 pm., Private Dining Room #3 in the basement. For those who have, or think they may have a gambling problem....

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
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Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
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JOHNNY WINTER ALL STAR BAND The Johnny Winter Band has been wowing audiences everywhere with incredible music played by Johnny's band and guest artists. Join Paul Nelson and The JW Band in a...

Cost: $20 ADV + $22 DOS + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live Wilmington
500 N Market St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 215-222-1400
Contact Name: MP Intern
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Now in its 8th year, the PAWS for People Conference/Annual Meeting is designed for those who love their pets, are pet enthusiasts or who want to learn more about the world of Pet Therapy. This...

Cost: $45 through 2/14; $50 after that date; $5 discount for PAWS members.

Where:
Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
1600 Rockland Road
Wilmington, DE  19803
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Sponsor: PAWS for People
Telephone: 302-351-5622
Contact Name: Clarice Ritchie
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February 3 – 25 Group Show featuring still life paintings in oil by Rosemary Castiglioni; gestural animal paintings by Gay Freeborn; and plein air landscapes from Zion National Park,...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Newark, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-9111
Website »

More information

The Wilmington & Western Railroad's Hockessin Art Festival is a fundraising effort to benefit the railroad. Over 25 artists will be displaying and selling limited-edition...

Cost: $3 for art show admission; $5 for train fare (children under 2 are free)

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
606 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE  19707
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Sponsor: Wilmington & Western Railroad
Telephone: 302-998-1930
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Are you interested in learning more about what volunteer opportunities the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation has to offer? Consider attending our Volunteer Open House at our shipyard in Wilmington, DE from...

Cost:

Where:
Kalmar Nyckel Foundation
1124 E 7th St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

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DCM Guests will experience, engage in, and take home different STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathmatics) activities run by Science Ambassadors from the Charter School of Wilmington...

Cost: $8.75

Where:
Delaware Children's Museum
550 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 302-425-4890
Contact Name: Joe Valenti
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society announces the next play in the exciting series of National Theatre Live screenings. National Theatre Live is a groundbreaking project that presents the best of...

Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
View map »


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

More information

Build a hydraulic-powered machine while learning about pressure, water, and power. Families work together to solve science mysteries and engineering challenges. Activities are included in regular...

Cost: Adults: $14, Children 6-14: $5, Children 5 and under and Hagley Members: FREE

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library
200 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
Website »

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An evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball. Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to celebrate the lifesaving work of...

Cost:

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Join us for an unforgettable evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball.  Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to...

Cost: $175

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: American Heart Association
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We are a mixture of some of the best and hardest working musicians in the Philadelphia area specializing in a mashup concept, fusing the music of The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead....

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE
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Mo Lowda & The Humble is a three piece Indie-rock group from Philadelphia, PA. The band has created a unique musical style combining various genre's ranging from garage rock to jazz fusion;...

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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