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.”