'Shipwrecks as Fossils' at AAAS Pacific Division meeting

By Judy Holmes - Eureka Alert

Mariners call the continental margin off the North Carolina coast the "graveyard of the Atlantic." Syracuse University's first Professor of Interdisciplinary Sciences, Cathryn R. Newton, sees the area as rich with fossils for paleontologists, marine archeologists and historians to study.

Newton was invited to deliver the plenary lecture at the 90th Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Pacific Division, in San Francisco.

She will present "Shipwrecks as Fossils" during a special session on Monday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m. at San Francisco State University. AAAS is the world's largest scientific organization and publisher of Science.

The lecture will provide the first view of a new, searchable database she has developed of some 2,038 ships that sank off the Southeastern coast of the United States, the earliest of which dates from 1526.

"This is the largest database on shipwrecks ever known for this area of the ocean—by a factor of two," says Newton, dean emerita of SU's College of Arts and Sciences. "It is a scientific tool that enables us to look at shipwrecks and what they can tell us in entirely new ways."

The database includes ship names; type and size of the vessels; dates of sinking; information about the cargoes, passengers, ship departure points and intended destinations; and other information.

"Shipwrecks can be imagined as large fossils that sink to the sea floor much as deceased whales sink to the ocean floor and become part of the fossil record," Newton says. "Like other marine fossils, shipwrecks provide clues to the part of our history that lies beyond the shoreline."

Newton created the database from some 5,000 hand-written data cards on shipwrecks compiled by her father, oceanographer John Newton of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, and his research partners—Dorothy Nicholson of National Geographic, Harold "Doc" Edgerton of MIT, Gordon Watts of the state of North Carolina and Robert Sheridan, now of Rutgers University—more than 30 years ago.

These scientists, two of whom are deceased, were part of the Duke University-National Geographic research team that discovered the legendary Civil War ironclad the U.S.S. Monitor a few miles off Cape Hatteras in 1973. Newton, then a 16-year-old sophomore at Duke University, was a member of that team.

World War II North Carolina Graveyard of the Atlantic Battle of the Atlantic USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary