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Blackbeard, the infamous pirate, was said to have set parts of his enormous beard on fire just to intimidate enemies in battle.
If you wrote this into a script, only a sci-fi producer would buy it.
But researchers, divers and art conservators -- including a team from
the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation --
have discovered and analyzed paper fragments retrieved from the
shipwreck North Carolina archaeologists say is the Queen Anne's Revenge,
flagship of an 18th-century pirate whose name sent a chill into the
bone marrow of anyone whose path might cross his.
Blackbeard. The infamous pirate was said to have set parts of his
enormous beard on fire just to intimidate his enemies in battle. So what
can be made of these paper fragments -- and how in the world could they
have survived almost 300 years under the sea?
The arguments against such a find are too many to list, but here are a few of the biggest:
That paper survived any of that -- well, let chemist Jocelyn
Alc??ntara-Garcia size it up for you. Alc??ntara-Garcia is an assistant
professor at UD and on the staff of Winterthur Museum's Scientific
Research and Analysis Laboratory.
"It's amazing," she said. "As a scientist, that's my professional opinion -- it's amazing."
Sixteen tiny paper fragments were retrieved by experts who have been
analyzing the shipwreck site and its artifacts as part of the Queen
Anne's Revenge Project run by North Carolina's Department of Natural and
Cultural Resources. The shipwreck was first discovered in 1996 by the
private firm Intersal Inc.
It may be the first paper -- ever -- discovered after three centuries under the sea.
"If it's not the first, it's certainly in a very tiny minority," said
Melissa Tedone, book and library conservator at Winterthur and an
affiliated assistant professor at UD.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Melissa Tedone (left) and Jocelyn Alc??ntara-Garcia pose with a cutout of Blackbeard the pirate.
Tedone and Alc??ntara-Garcia can't explain how the fragments survived, but several theories have been proposed.
"It's possible the paper fragments weren't actually exposed to water
while underwater in the shipwreck," Tedone said. "They may have been
caught in a pocket of air."
Or they may have been in a spot where there was no oxygen.
"It could be the 'magic' of not having oxygen," Alc??ntara-Garcia
said. "Oxygen does nasty things. But I don't think there is a way to
know. Right now, my guess is that somehow as the ship was sinking these
tiny pockets didn't get water and didn't get much air."
Whatever it was, "it was just jaw-dropping," she said.
Tedone also is astonished that Erik Farrell, conservator in the QAR
Lab, recognized the fragments as bits of paper, mixed as they were in
mucky sludge, heavy with gunpowder, water and other sediments.
"He noticed some fibers and said we better save this handful of
muck," she said. "And then -- on top of that -- it's crazy enough that
there were paper fragments, but on some the printing was still intact."
Even more astonishing, the words were unique enough for researchers
-- after months of effort -- to trace the fragments to the book from
which they were torn, a first-edition 1712 volume of Captain Edward
Cooke's A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Performd in
the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711.
The "tiny pirate papers" -- as
Tedone and others call them -- came to Winterthur and UD by way of
Tedone's longtime friend and former grad school classmate, Emily
Rainwater, now a conservator for the State Archives of North Carolina.
Rainwater knew of Winterthur/UD's reputation and analytical capabilities
and contacted Tedone about the find.
"The QAR Conservation Lab does not have a paper conservator on
staff," Tedone said. "Who would expect to find paper on a 300-year-old
shipwreck? As you can imagine, this is outside the scope of any paper
Would Tedone be interested in consulting on the project?
Blackbeard? Shipwreck? 18th-century papers? Oh -- why not?
"And it just so happens that Jocelyn -- our scientist who is a
specialist in paper and fibers -- is also into scuba diving and obsessed
with shipwrecks," Tedone said.
Ideal for this project, in other words.
Tedone and Alc??ntara-Garcia traveled to North Carolina to meet with
the QAR team there and discuss the best ways to study and conserve them.
"The most exciting thing to me is that there was a group of people in
this room, highly trained, highly specialized, highly passionate about
these things -- all staring with a big question mark on our faces at a
bunch of fluffy paper fragments," Alc??ntara-Garcia said.
Several fragments were brought to Winterthur for analysis.
A tiny fragment of the recovered paper has been traced to a 1712 book.
Alc??ntara-Garcia used X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy to map the
elements present in the fragments and the concentrations of those
"With shipwrecks, one of the greatest concerns is pyrite disease,
associated with iron-based materials," she said. "If there is sulfur or
sulfur-containing material and iron-containing materials, it will
self-feed on the iron. Instead of having a cannon, you end up with a
pyrite. It looks like a cannon, but it is no longer a cannon. Knowing
that, and seeing a few specks on a couple of the fragments, there was a
big concern of this disease being present in the fragments."
The disease was not present, Alcantara-Garcia said.
Tedone also consulted with Joan Irving, a paper conservator at
Winterthur. They teased out a single fiber and, using a polarizing light
microscope, determined it was a bast fiber -- linen -- and further saw
that it had a cut appearance, indicating use of a Hollander beater in
the paper-making process. That instrument was used in paper-making after
1673, Tedone said.
With the information provided in the Winterthur/UD analysis, Rainwater will determine the best treatment for the fragments.
"As a book conservator, to get to see and handle and consult on these
fragments from a shipwreck -- it was an incredible experience," Tedone
said. "I think all of us so-called experts are in this field because
there is always more to discover and more to learn. The lifelong
learning of this profession is what draws us all in."
It is unclear how Blackbeard or any
of his shipmates may have come into possession of this book, whether
pirate ships often featured a library and whether many of those aboard
were even literate.
But such volumes could have been prized bits of booty captured in one of their many raids, Tedone said.
"Books were a valuable commodity in that time period," Tedone said.
"It's not like now, where anybody can run out to a second-hand store or
buy a cheap paperback. To have a book on the ship -- it was probably
something they plundered and it was valuable or it was purchased at a
To have torn pages from such a prize may hint at the desperate
situation Blackbeard and his mates found themselves in, she said. But
she leaves such theories for other researchers to explore.
The infamous pirate survived the grounding of the Queen Anne's
Revenge in 1718 and is said to have marooned some of his men to keep
more of its treasures for himself in his escape aboard a rescue sloop.
But later that same year, he was captured and killed by British
troops, who -- some accounts say -- hung his head from the front of
their ship as a trophy for all to see as they returned to their Virginia
base. There, the governor reportedly ordered Blackbeard's severed head
to be placed on a pole at the mouth of the Hampton River, a grim warning
to other marauders that a similar fate awaited them.
But that's another book.
Article by Beth Miller; photo
illustration by Jeffrey Chase ; photos courtesy of the North Carolina
Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Melissa Tedone