PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Construction crews working on a new Portsmouth ferry slip have unearthed the remains of what archaeologists have preliminarily identified as a late 18th-century sailing vessel.
The rare find would make the ship one of only about a dozen known Virginia wrecks dating from the period, said archaeologist John Broadwater, who helped conduct the underwater excavation of a Revolutionary War vessel off Yorktown during the 1970s.
It also would represent the only chance scientists have had since that time to study something more substantial than fragments that have washed ashore.
"Any ship dating to the 18th century is considered unusual," said Randy Turner, director of the state Department of Historic Resources district office in Portsmouth. "This is not an ordinary find."
Large sections intact
Construction crews discovered the unidentified wooden ship while excavating soil and debris from the new High Street ferry basin, said Richard Hartman, Portsmouth's director of public works.
Though damaged by the work, two large sections of the 100-foot-long vessel survive intact about 20 to 25 feet below the surrounding ground.
"We wouldn't have known it was there if he hadn't noticed what he was bringing up," said Hartman, who credited the find to a Tidewater Construction Co. equipment operator.
"There's all sorts of old wooden pilings down there. But this was part of a hull," Hartman said.
Hartman said his inspection persuaded him to shut down the work until the remains could be examined by archaeologists from the Department of Historic Resources. His suspicions were confirmed when Turner identified the find as a potentially historic shipwreck.
Turner called in nautical archaeologist Gordon Watts of East Carolina University, as well as two other members of the DHR staff, to conduct a more extensive survey of the site.
Date before 1800 indicated
Based on the size and strength of the ship's framing, the scientists believe that it was a solidly built, substantial vessel that may have been capable of sailing on the ocean.
Its timbers also include a high proportion of pine and other softwoods, suggesting a Southern and possibly Virginian origin, Turner said.
Several artifacts found at the site, including a late-18th-century bottle and mid-18th-century lead-glazed earthenware, point to a date sometime before 1800.
That could make the vessel one of about 100 ships known to have been deliberately sunk in the Elizabeth River during the Revolution.
"This ship was in very good shape when it hit the bottom," Turner said. "It wasn't something that was just allowed to rot away and sink. So it could have been scuttled."
Turner said the DHR will determine whether the site is significant enough to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. If so, the city, which is using $3.5 million in federal funds to build the ferry landing, will have to conduct further archaeological studies in order to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.
That work could range from measuring, documenting and photographing the wreck to a full-scale dig designed to recover all of the remains.
"The city's been remarkably cooperative and excited about this so far," Turner said.
"We want to work with them and see that there are no unreasonable delays," he added.
Both the city manager and the public works office have indicated their willingness to make room for a speedy excavation.
Slightly ahead of schedule thus far, the project could stop for at least "a week or so" with no intolerable effects, Hartman said.
"We want to do what's right," he explained. "But we also want to get it done as quickly as we can.
Pub Date: 4/11/97