By Mark St. John Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4783
10:47 AM EDT, August 19, 2013
Two of the nation's foremost underwater archaeologists began work in the river off Yorktown Beach Wednesday morning, surveying the previously undetected wreck of a ship that may have been scuttled by the British during the Revolution.
Brought in by the Department of Historic Resources' Threatened Sites Program, the team includes Williamsburg-based John D. Broadwater - who recovered the historic turret of the USS Monitor in 2002 - and North Carolina-based Gordon Watts - who discovered the famous ironclad off Cape Hatteras in 1973.
But despite having spent thousands of hours exploring this historic stretch of the York River over the past 35 years, the pair will be getting their first direct look at a wreck that - until the bottom currents shifted a few years ago - has been buried under a deep layer of silt and oyster shells.
"I first heard about it in 2008, when the folks from Marine Sonic over in Gloucester were testing some new equipment here and showed me their sonar records," Broadwater said.
"When they said they had great shots of four wrecks, I said - 'Don't you mean three?' Then they pulled out the pictures showing the remains of a new wreck."
The unidentified ship is believed to be part of a fleet of nearly 60 British vessels that were anchored off Yorktown during the October 1781 battle that ended the Revolution.
Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis had many of them scuttled to help protect the rear of his besieged army from an amphibious attack, resulting in a forest of masts, rails and quarterdecks rising from the relatively shallow waters along the shoreline.
Though much of that sunken fleet was salvaged after the British surrender, so many wrecks remained that it was not uncommon to find treasure hunters making off with artifacts from the bottom nearly 200 years later.
That's why Broadwater and Watts - along with Department of Historic Resources archaeologist David Hazzard - launched the first volunteer expedition in 1975 in an effort to save the endangered ships.
"We knew divers were down here looting every weekend," Broadwater says.
"That's how the whole sunken fleet project got started."
Over the following 15 years, the archaeologists found nine wrecks that could be linked to the 1781 British fleet and excavated one - the Betsy - in a 1987 expedition that was documented the following year by National Geographic magazine.
But not until a few years ago did the 10th and newest wreck emerge, scoured from its hiding place after new breakwaters caused a shift in the bottom currents.
Moored over the partially exposed hull for two days, the archaeologists will measure and map its outer dimensions as well as any accessible interior features.
They also plan to recover wood samples and any loose artifacts that could help identify the vessel.
"We always wanted to see the number of wrecks push into double figures," Broadwater said. "So it's really exciting to think that we might have another one."
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