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Nanticoke River shipwreck could be linked to Revolutionary War skirmish

For more than 200 years, the timbers lay hidden in the murky waters of the Nanticoke River. For decades, beach-bound traffic whizzed by above on U.S. 50.

It took a February barge accident to expose the sparse wreckage of what archaeologists determined was a merchant ship that likely ferried grain to or from the Eastern Shore port of Vienna in the late 1700s.

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But how the 45-foot-long craft came to rest on the river bottom remains a mystery.

Evidence of age and repairs suggests it could have been intentionally scuttled, perhaps because it was no longer seaworthy. Charring could indicate an accidental fire, or could offer a more historically significant clue — that this ship was among at least a dozen that British sympathizers looted and burned in Revolutionary War skirmishes known to have taken place in Vienna in 1780 and 1781.

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"I like the more dramatic one the best," Julie Schablitsky, the State Highway Administration's chief archaeologist, said of the possible explanations.

It may prove true, as archaeologists continue to search archives and scrutinize the soggy timbers. But even if it can't be tied to any specific incident, the wreckage discovered in April and revealed this week could offer a rare glimpse into the state's maritime history, as the oldest Maryland-made ship found in local waters, Schablitsky said.

Archaeologists plan to develop a three-dimensional model showing it to be a precursor to the schooners or clippers for which the Chesapeake Bay is known.

"It's really the rare occasion where we get to go ahead and dip our toe in the water and study underwater resources," she said. "That's why we have to make sure we get as much information from it as possible and share it with the public."

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The ship's remains were found after a barge struck and damaged a system of fenders designed to protect pilings on the U.S. 50 bridge about halfway between Cambridge and Salisbury. The U.S. Coast Guard ordered the State Highway Administration to clean up the mess and clear the channel between the Chesapeake and points upriver like Federalsburg and Seaford, Del.

When divers began lifting debris out of the 30-foot deep water two months later, they expected to pull up twisted metal but were surprised to find the aged wooden beams instead, clearly pieces of something old.

The SHA called in the state archaeologists. It was a discovery that they weren't prepared for.

Without time to build a tank large enough for timbers more than a dozen feet long, Schablitsky bought a large pool at Wal-Mart and set it up at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in Calvert County.

"We didn't have several months, so an above-ground swimming pool seemed to fit our needs," said Nichole Doub, the lab's head conservator.

If allowed to dry after soaking for so long, the wood would crack and shrivel, she explained.

Among the wreckage pulled from the river were the ship's keel and keelson, long pieces that run the length of the hull, and many of the planks that ran along its underside. They were fastened together using wooden pins called trenails, a key clue suggesting that the ship had been built locally, where there would not have been access to forged metal fasteners.

In some spots, sections of planking had been patched and replaced, also suggesting the craft could be traced to a local plantation rather than a large shipyard that would have replaced entire planks, said Jason Burns, a senior project manager with SEARCH Inc., a Florida-based archaeological contractor the state hired.

"They were just probably trying to repair it and keeping it afloat," he said.

The researchers soon confirmed its Maryland origins. An analysis of the timbers and the tree ring patterns they bear proved they were cut from oaks felled somewhere between Annapolis and the Potomac River around the middle of the 1700s. That sort of detective work employs knowledge of climate data and the effects that temperature and precipitation have on tree ring formation.

Archaeologists could also tell that the ship likely didn't venture out of Maryland waters. Its relatively small size and its single mast meant it wasn't suited for ocean travel, they said.

Such shipwrecks are rare finds around the Chesapeake. The most significant finds in recent history include the 1992 discovery of the engine of the mid-1800s-era steamship Columbus and the 1979 find of remains of what is believed to be the USS Scorpion, a floating battery used in the War of 1812.

Pieces of this shipwreck could find themselves on display eventually. For now, the timbers will remain in the Wal-Mart pool at the archaeological lab campus that overlooks the Patuxent River, the water filtering out salt held within the wood grain.

To be displayed dry, the wood would need to be treated with a chemical known as a bulking agent so it can then be dried out in a massive vacuum freeze-dryer at the lab, Doub said. The process preserves the appearance of the wood without it warping or cracking but makes even large beams as light as balsa wood.

Schablitsky said she plans to propose applying that process to key pieces of the wreckage, while the rest will likely be returned to the bay's waters in an undisclosed location.

In the meantime, archaeologists continue to dig for ties to the Revolutionary-era Vienna raids or other evidence that might land the ship a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, Burns said. The designation can be applied to sites, structures or objects that represent significant contributions to history or embody distinctive historical characteristics.

Many questions remain about the ship. For example, the archaeologists know little about the ship's design because there are very few drawings or other information available about ships so old, Schablitsky said.

One mystery stands out. There are an asterisk-shaped marking and other unusual glyphs on one piece of wood, markings the archaeologists have not been able to trace or understand, she said.

But even without answers to some of those questions, the shipwreck already has historical value.

"It's a very interesting vessel because there just aren't that many," Burns said.

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