Clues to ship's ID elusive

As a large crowd of people peeked around one another Sunday to watch the event happening about 20 yards beyond her, Marie Valdes stared almost straight up at the St. Augustine Lighthouse, following her 2-year-old grandson, Desmond in pointing at its beacon.

775289849About 150 people eagerly watched Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program Archeological Conservator Starr Cox carefully chip crustations and debris from the bronze bell of a ship sunk a few miles off the St. Augustine Inlet more than two centuries ago. The bell was lifted from a water-filled crate in which it had been kept untouched since December.

Sought was an inscription the lighthouse staff hopes will help identify the ship discovered in the summer of 2009. Excavation began last summer.

The excavation was carried out by the R.V. Desmond R. Valdes, a research vessel named for Valdes' late husband and donated to LAMP, the research arm of the lighthouse.

First with a piece of shaved wood, Cox chipped from the bell, revealing the dark bronze beneath. Later, she was joined by lighthouse volunteer Carmeline Panico, who added water to soften the debris Cox soon began to strike with a hammer and a blunt piece of iron.

Valdes said the event was significant -- writing found or not. "That the boat is still out there and contributing to such a discovery; it is doing what my husband loved," she said.

775289761Volunteer Lee McConkey said the magic for him is in the discovery of a bell that dates, experts think, to between the late 18th and early 19th centuries -- sailing perhaps during the American Revolution. "It's not if it has a name on it," McConkey said. "It's that they discovered it. I think that's the interesting part of it."

McConkey is one of 245 volunteers St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum Executive Director Kathy Fleming said work for the organization. Cox and Panico continued chipping at the bell as Fleming praised the support of lighthouse staff and volunteers. "This is part of sharing archeology with the community," Fleming said of the event and the ship's discovery.

The bell's clapper is missing. With proper repair, LAMP Director Chuck Meide said the bell could create the only manmade noise able to sound as it did on the wrecked vessel.

LAMP thinks another ship lies near the one from which the bell once rang. At 3:38 p.m., Meide told the crowd that with most of the bell revealed, finding "the smoking gun" seemed unlikely.

The bell's inscription, if it exists, may be found though X-ray and forensic methods. About 25 percent of the bell is still covered, mostly with a hard iron substance that must be removed with something stronger than a hammer and blunt object. Writing could be beneath it, Meide said.

Neither he nor Cox could give a timetable on removing the final debris. The unnamed wreck has already yielded artifacts including a cauldron. Next for the sunken ship: the raising of one of its guns in the summer. Meide said cannon balls already found will almost certainly bear inscriptions that might lead to its history. "There's plenty of work to do on the sea floor," Meide said.

Volunteer Craig Rio last year sorted through "dredge spoil" from the wreckage. "It's as bad as it sounds," he said. "It stinks; there are shells, stones, glass -- but mostly lead shot."

Rio said he found about 50 pounds of lead shot, sorting through the spoil of the ship Meide speculates tried to navigate an Oldest City inlet too shallow for its size.

Panico said she partly anticipated finding lettering on the bell Sunday, but it did not dampen her experience. "The whole thing was great to be part of," she said. "To see things as old as this bell come off that ship was amazing."


Author: Anthony DeMatteo | Source: The St. Augustine Record [January 24, 2011]


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