19th-Century "Time Capsule" Warship Emerging Near D.C.

Ceramic bowls, a clay pipe, medical gear, and a grog cup are among artifacts recovered from earlier work at the shipwreck site

By Willie Drye - National Geographic News

A warship submerged for two centuries in a river near Washington, D.C., could provide new insight into the relatively obscure War of 1812, say archaeologists who are preparing to excavate the wreck.

The war started because the British, who had been fighting with France since 1803, imposed restrictions on U.S. trade with the French, infuriating Americans.

Relations worsened when British ships began intercepting U.S. vessels on the high seas, removing any British-born sailors, and forcing them to serve in the British navy.

The U.S. Congress declared war on the British—including their Canadian colonists—in June 1812. Scientists have known about the unidentified wartime shipwreck, which lies in the Patuxent River about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the nation's capital, since the early 1970s. (Related: "Blackbeard's Ship Confirmed off North Carolina.")

In the 1980s archaeologists removed a few artifacts from the site that suggested the wreck might be the remains of the U.S.S. Scorpion, the flagship of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, which staged daring hit-and-run attacks against British invaders during the war.

The entire flotilla, including the Scorpion, was deliberately sunk in the Patuxent in 1814.

Starting in early 2013, archaeologists with the Maryland State Highway Administration, the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, and the Maryland Historical Trust will build a temporary watertight container called a cofferdam around the wreck, pump the water away, and start detailed excavations.

Thanks to ideal preservation conditions in the river, experts examining the wreck will be able to "pull back the layers of time," said Julie Shablitsky, an archaeologist with the Maryland State Highway Administration.

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shipwreck Washington D.C War of 1812 Patuxent River Maryland Historical Trust U.S.S. Scorpion