Native Americans slaves

ECU students explore, document shipwrecks

ECU graduate students

By Ginger Livingston - The Daily Reflector

Efforts to document two shipwrecks in South Carolina's Cooper River by East Carolina University students and researchers ended up with more questions than answers about who used the boats.

Shards of Native American pottery discovered in wreckage at a site called the Pimlico shipwreck have researchers asking if it's evidence that the ship's owners possessed Native Americans slaves, if there was trade between Native Americans and individuals who worked on the ship or if perhaps it's debris that washed in the wreckage.

Discovering such a mystery is what drives students and researchers in ECU's Maritime Studies program.

Founded in 1981, the Maritime Studies program, part of the university's Department of History, offers a master's degree in maritime history and nautical archaeology. ECU's program was the second in the nation and today is only one of four programs in the nation.

“We have an emphasis on field work,” said Lynn Harris, assistant professor of Maritime Studies. Harris came to ECU from South Africa and was an early student of the program.

Teaching students the practical skills needed to work underwater sites routinely places students in the murky rivers and sounds of the Carolinas, the turbulent waters of the Atlantic and even Sweden and Namibia to study shipwrecks.

Students must participate in two field projects before earning their degree.

This requirement sent 20 students and professors to Charleston, S.C., for three weeks last month to study two plantation boats on display at the Charleston Museum and Middleton Place, a historic plantation. They also worked on the Pimlico and another shipwreck at Strawberry Landing, also along the Cooper River.

Because of tidal influences, dives on the two wrecks had to be split with time spent on land recording information about the plantation boats, which were called the Bessie and the Accommodate.

Both were built in 1855 and designed to transport people, crops and other materials around South Carolina's interior waterways.

The Bessie and Accommodate fascinated second-year student Nathaniel Howe, who previously worked on a project restoring a Swedish warship. The exterior hulls resembled Native American dugouts because each was shaped from a single log. However, the two boats' builders shaped the exterior to resemble the hull of a European boat and lined the interior with planks. It was designed to be rowed or sailed, Howe said. While recording its dimensions, the students saw how one boat's user relocated the mast.

“It's amazing how much history is in this structure,” he said.

The students used a piece of equipment called a total station to record a three-dimensional image of a point on the boat. The points are combined eventually to make a three-dimensional model of the boat.