Archaeologists of the Caribbean

Eye patch and peg leg-we all know what makes a pirate. Or do we? Only recently have scientists taken a serious look at the archeology of piracy, with SCU’s Russ Skowronek one of the hearties unearthing facts buried beneath centuries of myth

Archaeologists of the Caribbean
Captain Kidd and Blackbeard, eye patch and peg leg, buried chests brimming with pieces of eight-we all know what makes a pirate. Or do we? It’s only recently that scientists have taken a serious look at the archeology of piracy–a field rife with ethical dilemmas, with artifacts scattered on the ocean floor, and facts sunken beneath centuries of myth.


Having traded his own ship for the 300-ton slaver Whydah, which he had captured near the Bahamas and heavily armed with cannon, notorious pirate Sam Bellamy and his crew of 130 men made their way up the North American coast, robbing other merchant vessels they came across. It was February 1717. Just two months later, caught in a roaring Nor’easter, the Whydah sank a quarter mile off Cape Cod, killing all aboard save two, who made it to shore only to be captured and hanged. For 266 years the wreckage of the Whydah lay in 30 feet of water at the mercy of the tides, awaiting rediscovery by salvors during the 1980s.

Coincidentally, in the 1980s budding archaeologist Russ Skowronek was in college in Florida—where old fortifications and rumored pirate ship wrecks dot the coast. When Skowronek had the chance to work under the mentorship of George Fisher, the National Park Service’s first underwater archaeologist, he jumped at it. Thus began a lifelong interest that neatly married three things Skowronek really enjoyed: archaeology, swimming, and pirates.

Years later, as a Santa Clara University associate professor of archaeology, Skowronek included the story of the Whydah in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy (University Press of Florida, 2006), a book he co-edited with Charles Ewen, East Carolina University professor of archaeology. The book is a collection of writings by archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians—including one essay about the Whydah by Christopher E. Hamilton, who served as principal archaeologist on the Whydah salvage project-that explore the actual exploits of pirates during the “Golden Age of Piracy” between the 17th and 19th centuries. Lauded in an online review by Archaeology Journal as “the first comprehensive, scholarly look at the artifactual evidence of real pirates,” X Marks the Spot is due to be released in paperback this spring.

is it even possible to recognize a pirate in the archaeological record?

Before the Whydah was commandeered by Bellamy, it had carried slaves from West Africa to Jamaica. To date, the ship is the only irrefutably verified pirate ship ever discovered. Artifacts recovered included firearms, more than two dozen cannons, pewter dinnerware, some 8,000 coins, and African jewelry. But the best evidence of the wreck’s authenticity was the dramatic and unusually fortunate 1985 finding of the ship’s bell. Though the wreck’s provenance was already reasonably certified by court documents and historical accounts, the bell’s inscription—”THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716″—left absolutely no doubt.

As Skowronek and Ewen are quick to point out, such overwhelming proof rarely happens in archaeology, especially in marine archaeology. On the contrary, legend and popular culture may serve to make identification even more difficult.

“We try to dispel popular misconceptions about the past by examining the material record that people have left behind,” writes Ewen in the introduction of X Marks the Spot. “But is it even possible to recognize a pirate in the archaeological record?”

It’s possible, but not easy. “Did they wear special clothing?” asks Skowronek. “Did they have special technology or ships? Did they eat different foods? Not that we’ve identified yet.”


Pirates and Popular Culture

Born of legend

Born of legend: The romantic view of Belize history begins with a haven of free-spirited and adventuresome pirates.

But then, how is it that everyone knows how pirates acted, looked, and sounded? There’s even an International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Sept. 19. The dandy dress, the peg leg, the rolling Arrrrr!’s—isn’t that the essence of a pirate?

Unfortunately, no such characteristics exist. Take the growling Devonshire accent attributed to pirates. It was an invention of Robert Louis Stevenson, popularized by the actor Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney adaptation of Treasure Island. As for dress, even the world’s navies didn’t start wearing actual uniforms until the late 19th century. Peg legs? Prosthetics certainly weren’t rare among sailors, whose occupation was fraught with life- and limb-endangering activities.

In fact, there was good reason why pirates didn’t look, sound, or dress any different than other people. When not actually engaged in criminal pursuits, their survival probably depended on their very ability to blend in with the general population.

Just as interesting as the process of identifying pirates is the question of how we know what we think we know about pirates. Two key sources of influence in popular culture have been Stevenson’s 1883 Treasure Island and James M. Barrie’s 1904 Peter Pan. In the pages of these novels lurk practically every one of the prototypes and stereotypes of piratehood in our culture, from eye patches to parrots and plank walking.


Priate fact and fiction.

Archaeological knowledge about pirates has been scarce until the last couple decades. And separating fact from entrenched fiction turns out to be a major challenge for anyone doing serious research on pirates. One example is buried treasure.

Despite all the legends and lore, and all the efforts of modern-day treasure hunters, no certifiable chest of pirate treasure has ever been found. Actual pirates were happy to steal anything of value—for example, commodities like lumber and sugar, spices or opium—and sell what they’d stolen for gold. Then, rather than burying their “treasure,” they usually quickly spent it.

Popular culture distorts the truth in odd ways, so getting away from it is crucial for scientists and historians. From Mark Twain to Walt Disney, stories drawing on images of rum-guzzling, dirty-dealing, crocodile-fearing crooks of the high seas have attached to pirates a devil-may-care, attractively adventurous, Robin Hood-like aura. In fact, as contributors to X Marks the Spot point out, most pirates were thugs and terrorists of the worst sort—the kind of ruthless criminals that inspired ports such as St. Augustine, Fla., to spare no expense in building massive fortifications for keeping them out.


One nation's pirate was often another nation's hero.

Burdens of proof

Even as legend and lore do little to help identify real pirates, they also gloss over some of the more important complications about pirates and their ships and lairs. In the Spanish Caribbean of the 17th and 18th centuries, one nation’s pirate was often another nation’s hero. Letters of Marque—contracts offered by government to some merchant vessels—essentially served as a license for privateers to engage in piracy against enemy nations, so long as the granting state got its share of the booty.

Thus, to the Spanish, both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh were fearsome pirates. “At night,” says Ewen, “Spaniards would tell their kids, ‘Go to bed or El Drac (Drake) will get you!’”

Similar confusion extends to the identification of ports and wrecks as actual pirate lairs and ships. Recovered artifacts occasionally help—convincingly, in the case of the Whydah—but such luck is rare because the oceans do such a good job of burying and carrying away relics.

In fact, as Ewen and Skowronek attest, the hardest part of putting their book together was finding verifiable pirate sites. “You’d think they’d be everywhere, with all the claims out there,” says Skowronek. “And yet, keep in mind that this was illegal activity, and pirates tended to cover their trails as much as possible.”


Diving for artifacts

The surge in treasure hunting by non-archaeologists poses real dangers to the preservation of valuable artifacts.

A pact with the devil

Despite the scarcity of actual buried treasure, the general public has long likened archaeology to a treasure hunt in the style of Indiana Jones. It’s clearly not. But pirate treasure hunting by non-archaeologists—aided by widespread access to GPS, sonar, and other new technologies—has steadily increased in recent years.

This surge in activity poses real dangers to the preservation of valuable artifacts. Even when treasure hunters determine that there’s no treasure to be found and break off exploring a wreck or site, they may leave it in a situation more vulnerable to deterioration.

More subtly dangerous are the compromises that archaeologists may feel pressured to make if they decide to collaborate with treasure salvors. The ethical issues involved are real and quite divisive for the profession.

Ewen and Skowronek note that it’s no coincidence their colleagues have typically been reluctant to investigate pirate sites. Working with treasure hunters has resulted in the equivalent of the infamous “black spot” for more than one archaeologist—even if all they were trying to do was intervene and preserve some of the artifacts or data about to be destroyed.

The two archaeologists allow that even publishing a not-strictly-academic book like X Marks the Spot is tricky. “It’s a good thing our own careers are already in pretty good shape!” says Ewen.

—Monte Lorenzet is a freelance writer

Monte Lorenzet
Monte Lorenzet
Photo: Michael Winokur
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