The Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground at Topsail Inlet (now Beaufort Inlet) in June of 1718, an unlikely ending for a reign of terror directed by the pirate ship’s captain, Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard.

Some historians contend Blackbeard intentionally sacrificed the ship to steal from and abandon his own crew, which at one time numbered as many as 300. The 100-foot-long ship was also abandoned, left behind to be taken by storms and by the tide.

Today, a pile of rubble—widely believed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge—rests in 22 feet of water, just a mile from the North Carolina shore. The remains, once the command of the most notorious buccaneer of his swashbuckling time, have lain silent for almost 300 years.

Now, this underwater wreck is talking—and science is listening.

When the wreck was discovered in 1996, speculation arose that chests of gold and jewels would be found nearby. Blackbeard left none of his stolen riches behind. But in terms of science, the treasures being unearthed today are worth their weight in gold.

Without the wreck site we never would have had as much motivation to do the things we’re doing now,” says John T. Wells, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences. “This is a very good example of marine science being brought to bear on other fields, the fields of history and archeology.”

Plus, Wells notes, “it’s kinda cool.”

While the North Carolina Underwater Archeology Unit continues its exploration of the shipwreck—pulling up artifacts such as large cannons, wine bottles, and small amounts of gold—Wells and his colleagues find time to take measurements that are usually difficult to collect along the unpredictable North Carolina coast. Knowing, or at least believing, that the ship once belonged to Blackbeard continues to motivate scientists, historians, underwater archeologists, the media, and the general public.

Although archeologists have yet to find conclusive evidence that this ship is the Queen Anne’s Revenge, all indicators point strongly in that direction. Divers returned a ship’s bell dated to 1709 early in the project, proving the wreck can’t be any older than that date. All the artifacts—cannons, wine goblets, a syringe, a pewter dinner plate—pulled from the ship are consistent with the wreck date, 1718.

The ship is also known to have carried 14 to 16 cannons before it was captured by Blackbeard, but divers at the scene have observed 18 cannon tubes and recovered three, according to Mark Wilde-Ramsing, a spokesman for the state Division of Archives and History who has dove on the site numerous times. Historical accounts suggest that Blackbeard may have armed the ship with as many as 40 guns at one time, adding many smaller rail guns and some cannons. No other vessel known to have sunk in the vicinity carried more than 10 cannons.

Blackbeard was serving under Capt. Benjamin Hornigold, stealing ships
and booty, when the pair came across a large ship flying the French flag off St. Vincent in 1717. They fired on the ship, a Dutch-built “flute” called the Concorde, and captured it. Hornigold let Blackbeard take the ship, which Blackbeard renamed and used to terrorize the coasts of North and South Carolina. In May of 1717, he deployed several stolen ships in a blockade at the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and for several weeks proceeded to extort money, supplies, and medicine from the city.

Wells is also hoping to reconstruct the surrounding environment at the time the Queen Anne’s Revenge went down. He has acquired a series of historic maps and charts dating back to the early 1700s, and many of those will be electronically digitized. The shifting sands have moved shoals and altered inlets up and down the state’s coastline during the past three centuries, and the more scientists can learn about the past of this volatile area, the better they can understand the future.

According to the maps Wells acquired, the channel leading to Beaufort Inlet has waved back and forth like an arm extending out from shore over time. It points in a different direction now than at the turn of the last century. A map from 1806 shows that a shoal, or sandy extension, that jutted out from the barrier island now known as Shackleford Banks actually covered the wreck site. This may explain why the Queen Anne’s Revenge went undiscovered for so long—and why the wood of the ship is in such fine condition. It was covered with sand, to the point that in 1806 a person could walk out and stand over the shipwreck without getting wet.

The ship is presumed to have originally been scuttled in 12 feet of water, while it now rests 22 feet deep. If Wells can figure out why it lies at such a depth (taking into consideration the three-foot rise in sea level that has occurred over time), it may help him more accurately rebuild the changing coastal environment of the last 300 years.

That shifting sand finally revealed parts of the shipwreck 11-15 years ago, according to Niels Lindquist, associate professor of Marine Sciences. Lindquist specializes in the study of marine organisms and has dove on the wreck several times. By pulling heads of coral—which need exposure to light and oxygen in order to grow—off certain artifacts, Lindquist can estimate the age of the coral and the amount of time that part of the wreck had been exposed.

Corals were a very good indicator because we knew something about their growth rates from experiments that were being done for other reasons,” Lindquist said. “For nearly a fifteen-year period, this portion of the wreck has been sitting above the sand. You can see nets that people have dragged across that area shrimping, and other things people have snagged on it but
didn’t understand what they had caught.”

A more exact dating process under the direction of Chris Martens, professor of Marine Sciences, has contributed several key pieces of discovery. By radiocarbon-dating the wood found at the wreck site, Martens said the planks were cut between 1610 and 1670, which is consistent with the boat’s construction around the early 1700s.

It’s exactly the range of ages one would expect to find,” said Martens of the analysis, completed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.

Martens also determined that none of the large pieces of the wreck have moved in the last 50 years. To answer that question, he tested pieces for certain radioisotopes which are prevalent on most marine sediments worldwide—the product of atmospheric nuclear testing during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s.

Does this prove without a doubt that it’s the Queen Anne’s Revenge? No, but the state’s underwater archaeologists are finding so many physical pieces of evidence that, taken in their entirety, we’re building a strong scientific case that this likely was Blackbeard’s ship.”

When he left behind the Queen Anne’s Revenge, it seems that Blackbeard’s intention was to leave nothing of value. Archeologists, historians and scientists have found otherwise, but they may be running out of time. The ship’s current position is precarious, according to Richard Lawrence, director of the state’s underwater archeology unit. Storms, especially hurricanes, and wood-boring pests could jeopardize the operation, which is why Lawrence and others are pushing for full-scale excavation and the construction of a $6 million conservation facility adjoining the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

As Wells says, “The future holds many periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.”

A Very Nasty Dude

Blackbeard has attained legendary status in North Carolina, though he only lived in the state for 12 months and pirated for two terrorizing and brutalizing years. Historical accounts describe Blackbeard as a savage who shot members of his own crew for sport and forced his fourteenth wife, a 16-year old, to prostitute herself to five or six of his friends while he watched. (Some historians have disputed these claims.) Blackbeard is credited with overtaking 45 ships during his brief run.

An imposing man physically, he is said to have boarded ships with multiple guns and knives strapped to his person and sparkling fuses dangling from his thick black beard. Those he was stealing from rarely fought back. During the fall of 1718, Gov. Spotswood of Virginia hired Lt. Robert Maynard of the British navy to track down and kill Blackbeard. Maynard’s search ended on the south side of Ocracoke Island where he and Blackbeard and their men battled. Blackbeard died after suffering 20 knife wounds and five by gunshot. Maynard celebrated by sailing back to Virginia with Blackbeard’s head dangling from his ship’s bowsprit.

Officials in Hyde County have announced plans to build a navigable replica of The Queen Anne’s Revenge as a tourist attraction.

Safe for Science

Amazingly, the Queen Anne’s Revenge went undiscovered until November
1996. Since then, the Underwater Archeology Unit has kept the site secure, monitoring it around the clock. The site is so well protected, in fact, that marine scientist John Wells saw an opportunity to deploy an instrument that could systematically collect detailed information about the underwater environment at the site of the wreck. The Interoceans S4, an electromagnetic current meter, looks like a bright yellow medicine ball, but its sophisticated electronics record the speed and direction of the current, the height of the waves, the period or frequency of the waves, and the change in tide, twice a second for 12 minutes every hour.

It’s an opportunity to get the kind of information that we never have gotten before,” Wells said. “There aren’t many places where you can go out and drop something over and feel confident that when you go back to get it, it’s going to be there.”

Every couple of months, the instrument is pulled out of the water and serviced, so that the data can be downloaded onto a computer for compiling and analysis. A full-year period was recently completed, giving scientists a first-ever look at the annual cycle of waves, tides, currents, changes in water depths, and the effects that storms and hurricanes have on the underwater world. Last August, the S4 remained intact as Hurricane Bonnie blew overhead, capturing data on what happens beneath the surface during a tropical storm.

To my knowledge, it’s the first really good record—and we haven’t completely analyzed it yet—of hurricane-produced waves and currents that have been obtained close to the shore, here in North Carolina,” Wells says. “We don’t really know what the bottom does during hurricanes. So by leaving this instrument out for a year and capturing a wide range of conditions, we have some opportunity to get a sense as to what happens during storms and what impact they may have had on the wreck.”