Robotic Archaeological Excavation Highlights the Forgotten Tale of a Lost Schooner off Florida
Many times when the Odyssey crew sets their sights on a specific target they come across several other shipwrecks along the way. Sometimes the Odyssey crew will simply investigate a site and document its coordinates while other times the crew will conduct a full-scale pre-disturbance survey. This was the case back in 2003 when Odyssey was searching for the Civil War-era steamship the SS Republic and came across a mystery site which the crew dubbed the “Blue China” wreck due to the presence of a large quantity of blue-decorated ceramic wares at the site. The wreck is believed to be the remains of a small two-masted New York-based American schooner carrying a cargo of highly coveted trade goods from New York to southern merchants when it sank in the mid 1800s.
Odyssey discovered the wreck deep in the Atlantic, over 1200 feet down, far off the coast of Jacksonville, FL. The site contained a mix of mostly British ceramics and American glass ware. This is the largest such cargo that has ever been archaeologically documented and recovered from this era, before the death of the schooner and rise of the steamship. This is also the first wreck of an East Coast schooner found off America and the only one boasting an assortment of mid-19th century British crockery. You can explore the artifacts recovered from this shipwreck in Odyssey’s Virtual Museum, accessible free to the public at www.OdysseyVirtualMuseum.com. Select artifacts are also on display in Odyssey’s traveling exhibit SHIPWRECK! Pirates & Treasure.
The Jacksonville “Blue China” wreck is likely the remains of a 65-foot schooner which specialized in American East Coast trading. The ship carried a large cargo of British ceramic ware reflecting the latest trends designed to appeal to the American consumer: a diversity of dining and toilet wares desired by aspiring middle class consumers along the East Coast and in the Deep South. Alongside the full suite of ceramic wares made in Staffordshire, England, the vessel carried a diverse collection of American glassware including table and bar ware and individual lamp components as well as an assortment of glass bottles once containing spirits, medicinal products, mineral water, condiments, and cologne.
Research indicates the ship was likely a victim of the great hurricane of September 7-9, 1854, that lashed the coast of Georgia and Northern Florida, destroying the year’s rice and cotton crops, inflicting vast damage on the wharves of Charleston, and going down in history amongst New York’s hard-hit insurance agents as the notorious “black year”. The hurricane was the worst to hit the East Coast in a generation and the crew of the small Jacksonville “Blue China” schooner would have had a hard time surviving the monster storm. The ship’s telescope, part of a sextant and pocket compasses - the latter found closed- reflect the futility of this early technology against the forces of nature at such times.
The wreck was first brought to Odyssey’s attention by local fishermen whose nets had ensnared ceramic wares over the last 40 years. Using cutting-edge technology Odyssey located the wreck, and noted damage to the site caused by the dragging of trawl nets across the site. The company later began an archaeological rescue excavation after returning to the site and discovering additional substantial damage. Using the Remotely Operated Vehicle ZEUS – the eyes and hands of the archaeologist working in deep sea, Odyssey conducted a pre-disturbance survey and then worked to recover the remaining undamaged artifacts for further study and exhibit before the wreck became even more extensively damaged and the data lost.
The project research has revealed that the ship was transporting items produced in several countries including British pottery wares and a few porcelain ginger jars from Canton, China. A wide variety of American-made glass bottles were scattered across the seabed, their original contents of medicine, liquor, condiments, mineral water and cologne long disappeared. Other consignments included stacked glass window panes and kegs of white lead (raw materials for the building industry), leather shoes and two different styles of tobacco pipes.
The ship likely set sail from New York, the largest American port in mid-19th century America and home to a dynamic network of British pottery merchants and suppliers. , Ten lead ingots stamped with the merchant’s name, ‘James McCullough N-Y’ were found on the site along with the remains of a spring-loaded weighing balance inscribed with the name of ‘Morton & Bremner’ of New York, a partnership that broke up in 1854 – the likely year of the storm which sealed the fate of this small schooner.
Five archaeological reports detailing the Jacksonville “Blue China” project, as well as all of Odyssey’s publications, can be found on Odyssey’s website at: http://www.shipwreck.net/featuresarchpapers.php.
“Blue China” Archaeological Papers
OME Paper 3
Hawk Tolson, The Jacksonville 'Blue China' Shipwreck & the Myth of Deep-Sea Preservation (2009)
OME Paper 19
Ellen Gerth, Neil Cunningham Dobson, Dr. Sean Kingsley, The Jacksonville 'Blue China' Shipwreck (Site BA02): A Mid-19th Century American Coastal Schooner off Florida (2011)
OME Paper 20
Ellen Gerth, The Jacksonville 'Blue China' Shipwreck (Site BA02): the Ceramic Assemblage (2011)
OME Paper 21
J. Byron Sudbury, Ellen Gerth, The Jacksonville 'Blue China' Shipwreck (Site BA02): Clay Tobacco Pipes (2011)
OME Paper 22
Ellen Gerth, Bill Lindsey, The Jacksonville 'Blue China' Shipwreck (Site BA02): the Glass Assemblage (2011)
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