What is The Graveyard of the Atlantic?
The waters off the North Carolina coast are as treacherous and any others in the entire world. Every year many people lose their lives, even today, in the warm, tropical waters, fed by the Gulf Stream. Three huge shoal systems dictate the navigation of the coast in a dynamic environment of shifting sands and constantly moving sandbars. Even the most seasoned commercial fishermen are confounded by the always-changing shoals; Frying Pan Shoals in the south, off Wilmington, Diamond Shoals in the north, off Hatteras and in the middle, Cape Lookout Shoals. Cape Lookout Shoals has spots where the bottom comes to within inches of the surface, ten to eleven miles out in the ocean, just waiting for the unwary captain to run upon and bust the bottom out of his new cabin cruiser. Modern electronics have revolutionized navigation in the oceans and inland waters of the world and great effort and money is spent to keep these areas updated as conditions change year to year. However, the waters off North Carolina still fool even the best GPS and sonar systems causing many accidents a year. Imagine what it must have been like to navigate here before we had such precise modern equipment.
From early schooners and barkentines in the 1800s to primitive steamships, to the Merchant Marine vessels of World Wars I and II and even modern sport fishing boats, shipwrecks are, in some cases, stacked one on top of another.
In the mid-1990s, two separate studies of historic shipwreck accounts and reports were done by professors in the Maritime History Program at East Carolina University, which resulted in a total accounting of ships lost in North Carolina waters. The average number of confirmed shipwreck accounts came to between six and seven thousand, an amount greater than the Great Lakes and the Florida Keys combined. This represents the greatest concentration of submerged cultural resources in the entire world! When we factor in submerged settlements, villages, forts and unreported shipwrecks such as pirated or stolen vessels, small fishing boats, inland rivers and lakes and other undocumented wrecks, the number rises to ten thousand in an area from the mountains of North Carolina to fifty miles offshore.
Of this huge amount of submerged cultural resources, only about a third have been identified and confirmed and less than five percent have had any real archaeological research done. All the rest are undocumented and lie at the mercy of the wind and waves. SIDCO is one of only four private, nonprofit organizations in North Carolina, along with the NC Office of Archaeology and East Carolina University, archaeological resources are stretched to the breaking point, and funding is nearly non-existent. We have literally generations of work to do in the waters of this state.
What happens if this vital work is not done? As far back as the late seventies, North Carolina’s cultural resources have been looted and spirited away in the dark of night. Two anchors from the Spanish steam freighter Ea ended up in the front lot of a Key Largo dive shop and were photographed for Skin Diver Magazine in June 1979. The anchors had been looted from the wreck and taken to Florida in order to entice new divers to see all the sunken history in the Florida Keys. In the early nineties, a Civil War-era wreck, known to sport divers as “Governor” was looted, a brass cannon was taken, and scores of brass belt buckles were raised and sold for $300 each. The final disposition of the cannon is unknown to this day. A Florida-based treasure-hunting group, as of summer 2018, is excavating another vessel, a steam packet, called Pulaski. The plans for what will happen to the actual historic artifacts from this beloved piece of cultural resources are unknown.
We must continue to document these shipwrecks and display interpretive exhibits in this state’s maritime museum system and other accredited museums for the education of the people of North Carolina, to whom these cultural resources belong.