Located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary sits astride 400-year old shipping routes and fishing grounds for New England’s oldest ports. Centuries of marine calamites have made the sanctuary’s seafloor an underwater museum. Archaeological research has only begun to reveal these stories of the past. Beginning in 2000, sanctuary researchers took the first steps to locate and identify the historic shipwrecks in the sanctuary waters. Since then, the sanctuary has partnered with the Northeast Underwater Research Technology and Education Center (NURTEC) at the University of Connecticut to bring advanced remote sensing technologies to the sanctuary for shipwreck exploration.
When I joined the sanctuary research team in 2002, I was immediately impressed with the possibilities the sanctuary offered for archaeological research. Unlike other Federal waters, historic sanctuary shipwrecks are protected by regulations that prohibit their damage or disturbance (unfortunately fishing activities are exempted from these regulations, a significant gap in the sanctuary’s resource protection abilities). The sanctuary’s largely unexplored location and its relatively deep waters meant that artifacts have remained on sites ready to shed light on our ancestor’s maritime activities. Thus, archaeological discovery in the sanctuary is a thrilling process, from the first hints that side scan sonar has revealed a new shipwreck to the first observation of that site, either by SCUBA diving or remotely operated vehicle (ROV).
Recent research on a sunken schooner, named Lamartine, highlighted the interesting investigative aspects of sanctuary maritime heritage research. Located in 2004 while searching for another shipwreck, archaeologists used NURTEC’s ROV to image the site; a pile of intricately shaped flat granite slabs lying on top of a wooden hull. Library research determined that the granite slabs were sewer catch basin covers used in the construction of street corners. Nearly 7 years of archival research failed to turn up any likely candidates for the shipwreck until a volunteer historian found the Lamartine’s story. A visit to the University of Maine’s library uncovered the granite quarry’s ledger that supplied Lamartine’s cargo confirming the shipwreck’s identity. During a May 1893 storm off Cape Ann, that cargo shifted capsizing the schooner and taking the life of one sailor. Next time you are walking the old streets of Boston or New York, look down and you might see one of these granite basin covers still in place over 100 years after its installation.
In juxtaposition to the dramatic stories of destruction encapsulated in Stellwagen Bank sanctuary shipwrecks, I am wowed by the vibrant marine life that now inhabits these oases of biodiversity. Shipwreck structure provides ideal homes for many of New England’s undersea inhabitants. To so many, New England’s waters are cold, dark places, seemingly impenetrable from the beach. The archaeological fieldwork I’ve conducted has revealed dozens of varieties of colorful organisms that would amaze people if they saw them living in their native habitat.