Pirate Archaeology

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Piracy captures the fascination of people around the world. Often it is seen as a mythical way of life of dirty, mean men with straggly hair, peg legs, eye patches, an endless supply of rum, and lots of treasure. The media love to play up these stereotypes in movies and books with exaggerated story lines featuring characters in flashy costumes. Children and adults alike dress up for Halloween to mimic these legendary figures. While it is easy to get caught up in the fantasy of it all, some people follow this enthrallment with pirates into the depths of the ocean. These maritime archaeologists study aged documents and legends and venture out to sea with high-tech equipment to uncover the mysteries that lay beyond pirate stereotypes. What they discover gives life to pirates and their ways. Without underwater archaeology, the current knowledge of piracy would be extremely limited. This information is important in uncovering and providing more evidence to the histories of all the countries and people that were affected by these pirates.

Underwater Archaeology

Underwater archaeology (also referred to as maritime archaeology) is the study of human activities on the seas and interconnected waterways. Shipwrecks are most often studied, but the field also explores harbors, submerged land surfaces, and coastal settlements [1]. Significant advancements in technology have made underwater archaeology a growing, and more informative field. The invention of the glass facemask, rubber foot fins and a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, called SCUBA, allowed for free exploration in the water [1] . These however, were small innovations compared to the technology used today. Today underwater archaeologists use optical and acoustic imaging, side-scan sonar, optical imaging, photomosaics, three-dimensional reconstruction, and microbathymetric measurements to study sites [1] . The technology required for each of these methods is complex and ever advancing. The more the quality of technology improves, the more easily and in depth archaeologists can study pirate shipwrecks.

This type of archaeology has unique limitations. Because the research is underwater, prior planning and simple tasks take much longer than they would on dry land. This makes the field very labor and equipment intensive[1] . The water is under constant movement so this poses a logistical obstacle for marine research. The sites are subject to movement by currents, surf, and storms, so the time for research and investigation must be planned for certain time periods when conditions of optimal. The archaeological equipment must be adapted to underwater use. Divers must also be skilled because they are subject to minimal visibility and hazardous conditions. Although there are many limitations, water proves to be a more efficient preserver than land. Therefore, it allows archaeologists to see the natural aesthetics of the artifacts found and how they worked [1].

John Bowen and The Speaker

The Speaker was the first pirate ship to be archaeologically investigated. John Bowen commanded the ship in the year 1700 off the Malabar Coast. He had originally been commander of a ship trading in the West Indies, but was soon captured by a French pirate who then detained him and made him the ship’s sailing master. When his captive ship sank, he and other prisoners escaped to a longboat and sailed to the Augustin Bay where the king allowed them provisions. The naïve king required the first English vessel to come in the port to take the men. Little to his knowledge, this vessel was a pirate ship commanded by William Read. Knowledge in between the time Bowen boarding this vessel and commanding his own is limited. What is known is that in the year 1700, he became the commander of the Speaker. His crew, like those of other pirate ships, consisted of men of all nations. On January 7, 1702, a violent storm sank the ship near the “Swarte klip” (now called Illot des Roches). All of the crewmembers safely made it to shore because they used the ship’s masts and yards to form rafts. Two days later, two hunters found the pirates and alerted the governor, Roelof Diodati. The governor formulated a plan to allow the pirates medical attention and offer them a small vessel before murdering them. Bowen outsmarted the governor and enlarged the vessel so that his crew could make a quick departure. The crew escaped, but the Speaker remained submerged and in shambles .

In July 1980 a French research team, in coordination with UNESCO, signed a draft treaty with the Mauritian government to investigate the wreck site. They searched about one kilometer south of Rocky Island and two kilometers offshore of Grand-Riviere southeast. Documents revealed the possible location and that the ship measured around 145 feet and carried 40 cannons. Upon initial investigation of the site, archaeologists found the wreck dispersed and poorly preserved because the reef on which it sat is exposed to heavy swells. None of the timber from the ship survived but debris covered about five thousand square meters of the reef. Among the debris, various items were found including: thirty-one cannons, three anchors, lead musket balls, cannonballs, hand grenades, five brass navigation dividers, part of a compass dial, tobacco pipes, a brass padlock, trading beads, two bronze statues, and gold and silver coins. The items found coincided with documentary evidence from legal depositions of some of the Speaker’s victims. The wreck was determined to be the Speaker. The discovery of this ship was important because a pirate ship had never before been examined in such detail .

Captain Kidd and the Adventure Galley and Christopher Condent and the Fiery Dragon

Captain William Kidd is one of the most recognized names in piracy. Therefore, the discovery for his ship, the Adventure Galley, was greatly desired. In 1696, Captain Kidd left New York as a highly respected privateer. He was a trusted man in both England and the Colonies—receiving rewards for his brave services to the crown . He went into business with Scottish entrepreneur and politician Robert Livingston. Together, the two men started a business in hunting pirates. Captain Kidd received the Adventure Galley for his undertaking. A document addressed to Captain Kidd at the time states: “William the Third, by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith. To our trusty and well beloved Capt. Robert [i.e., William] Kidd, commander of the Adventure galley…Now Know Ye, that we being desirous to prevent the aforesaid mischiefs, and as much as in use lies, to bring the said pirates, free-booters and searovers to justice, have thought fit, and do hereby give and grant to the said Robert Kidd, (to whom our commissioners for exercising the office of Lord High Admiral of England, have granted a commission as a private man-of-war, bearing date the 11th day of December 1695,) and unto the commander of the said ship for the time being, and unto the officers, mariners and others which shall be under your command, full power and authority to apprehend, seize, and take into your custody as all such pirates, free-booters, and sea-rovers, being either our subjects, or of other nations associated with them, which you shall meet with upon the seas or coasts…”

This shows he was a well-trusted man and given commission to hunt pirates that were a threat to England. Using this ship, Kidd committed acts of piracy of his own. It is suspected that Kidd was desperate and under pressure from his pirate crew because the group had failed to find pirates. On January 30, 1968, Kidd and his crew committed their first act of piracy when they captured the Quedah Merchant. Consumed by the power and riches gained from piracy or from persistent pressure from his crew, Kidd continued as a pirate. Rumors of his ways spread and he was soon hunted. Later that year, he was forced to abandon his sinking ship in the harbor of St. Mary’s island (St. Mary’s Island, off the coast of Madagascar, was a strategic base for pirates because they would wait on the coast of the island for the opportunity to raid Portuguese vessels sailing to England, France, and Holland, along with Indian Moghul ships passing by10). Interestingly enough, “according to some writers he was not a pirate at all—rather a scapegoat who got caught up in the political battles between Whigs and Tories in England at the end of the seventeenth century.” However, most agree that Kidd became a true pirate.

In January 2000 an expedition was launched to search for the wreck of the Adventure Galley. With the use of a Geometric 881 Cesium Vapor magnetometer and a Trimble GPS receiver, the research team found two ballast stone mounds. In one of them, Chinese blue and white porcelain fragments and glass shards were observed. The fragments were identified as cups from the Kangxi period (1662–1722). This time period fit with the time frame of the Adventure Galley. Support for the wreck being the Adventure Galley continued as documents mentioning the ship sinking near a “careening area” matched with the location of the mound. After creating a rough photo mosaic of the site, the team returned on May 24 to investigate the site with more high technology methods, such as ground-penetrating radar and Computer Assisted Radar Tomography (CART). As more and more Chinese porcelain fragments were located, the decorative patterns dated a period beyond that of the sinking of the Adventure Galley. Evidence began to suggest that the discovered ship was not the Adventure Galley, but the Fiery Dragon .

The Captain Christopher Condent owned the Fiery Dragon. He was initially part of the crew of another ship (name unknown). He was elected captain after he saved this ship and the rest of the crew from an Indian man who threatened to blow it up. Condent proceeded to rename the ship the Flying Dragon. On one of his pirate escapades, Condent’s attempt to attack an English ship at anchor in Luengo Bay was countered by an alarm that sounded on his ship’s approach. The English ship was wrecked on the rocks. The crew managed to refloat the Dutch vessel also involved in the attack and Condent renamed it the Fiery Dragon. With this ship, the pirates later claimed a large prize from an Indian vessel and returned to St. Mary’s Island to celebrate. Upon the return, an alleged fight broke out from a disagreement among the crewmembers about whether or not to accept a pardon and retire to Bourbon. The fight resulted in a premature burning of the ship. This means that the Fiery Dragon sank off the coast of St. Mary’s Island, just as the Adventure Galley did .

After realizing the possibility that the wreck was the Fiery Dragon instead of the Adventure Galley, the archaeologists investigated the site with more skepticism. Test excavation began on November 10, 2000. The style of the timber layout and futtocks found suggested Dutch construction, which supported that the wreck was more likely to be the Fiery Dragon. Also found were gold coins, more porcelain, and seeds. These items matched records of the Fiery Dragon’s capture of the Indian Moghul ship, the Prince Eugene, which would have contained these items. The variation among the designs of the porcelain suggested that the cups came from more than one ship. This evidence confirmed that the wreck was a pirate ship. Also found was a Chinese terra-cotta lion, a broken terra-cotta flask, a gargoulette, a small porcelain figurine, and an ivory figurine of Jesus Christ. After all the evidence was gathered and studied, the wreck was identified to be the Fiery Dragon13. This means that Captain Kidd’s Adventure Galley is still yet to be discovered. Although the Adventure Galley wreck is still unfound, this was still an important investigation because it showed the necessity for skepticism in underwater archaeology. It also provided evidence of the political and social issues of the time. Information about slave trading, weaponry, and shipbuilding was gained from the artifacts discovered on the Whydah. The Whydah was a 300-ton, London built, ship-rigged galley designed for the slave trade. Captain Lawrence Prince sailed the ship from England to the Gold Coast of Ghana and the slave market town of Whydah, now in Benin. It also sailed to the Caribbean in order to sell the slaves. At the end of February 1717, the ship was returning from the Caribbean filled with goods from selling slaves. The infamous pirate Samuel Bellamy targeted the Whydah and chased it for three days. Bellamy won the chase and took the ship as a prize. On the morning of April 26, 1717, the Whydah became involved in a fight with a merchant vessel. The vessel was then captured just east of Cape Cod. Later that night, the ship was crushed and capsized by a violent storm. Only two of the crew made it to shore and the body of Samuel Bellamy was never found. A few days later, the governor of Massachusetts sent Cyprian Southack to investigate the wreck. He found the remains separated and in pieces. By May 8, seventy-two bodies of the crew washed on shore. Also found were about sixty bottles of wine and sections of the ship’s hull. These sections were subsequently burned .

In 1984, a treasure hunter named Barry Clifford (also President of Maritime Explorations Incorporated) discovered the wreck. He proceeded to excavate, finding about twenty-three units. However, his methods were “scorned by maritime archaeologists and ruinous to both the wreck site and the benthic ecology” . In 1985, excavation continued and archaeologists were lucky in finding the Whydah’s bell with the engraving “The Whydah Galley 1716.” Unlike for other pirate ships, identification of the wreck was easy. Overall, the divers found twenty-seven cannons on board, along with rigging elements, deadeyes, a chain plate, a urinal, scupper liners, lead patches, blocks, anchors, and other miscellaneous items. The style of the ship, along with the artifacts and treasures found presented historians with more information about the African slave trading at the time. For example, “the presence of significant amounts of ‘treasure’ with large amounts of mixed small arms and heavy ordinance, coupled with the scarcity of evidence of common trade items, leads to the conclusion of forced maritime exchange or piracy. This type of exchange is epiphenomenal to the necessary presence of long-range merchant trade through relatively uncontrolled waters, however, upon which maritime piracy relies for its existence” . This, along with further information inferred from the artifacts, make the Whydah a significant discovery.

Blackbeard and Queen Anne's Revenge

Blackbeard is infamous for his incredible accomplishments and scare tactics as a pirate. Known at the time as Edward Teach, he served as a privateer during Queen Anne’s War (1701–1714). After the war, Teach was left without a job, and turned to true piracy, where he gained his well-known nickname. Along with his fellow pirates, Blackbeard captured the French slave ship, La Concorde. He kept this as his flagship and eventually renamed it Queen Anne’s Revenge. With this ship, he terrorized the seas of the Caribbean and North America . In 1718, Blackbeard was leaving the Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina. Upon his departure, he ran his ship aground. Blackbeard’s intention is still unknown. Testimonies from his crew say that he did it as a way of getting rid of the vessel and decreasing the number of crewmembers . It is also speculated that he grounded the ship to save the pirate’s booty, after which he received certificates of pardon from the Governor of that colony .

In November 1996, Interstal Incorporated researchers discovered a mound of cannon, anchors, and ballast stones. This mound was believed to be the remains of Queen Anne’s Revenge. Hoping to identify the wreck, further investigation of the site began in the fall of 1997. Among the finding were: eleven cannons, two anchors, a grappling hook, numerous iron cask hoops, several rigging elements, a cluster of cannonballs, and various ballast stone and concretions. Despite the artifacts found, the wreckage has still not been determined to be Queen Anne’s Revenge. There is little reason to believe that is not the infamous vessel, but there is no solid evidence to prove it. True evidence is needed especially in this case because of the numerous shipwrecks that have occurred off the coast of North Carolina .


Through all of these examples, more knowledge has been gained about maritime piracy and its influences throughout the past and modern world with the help of underwater archaeology. In the words of Russell K. Skowronek, “Ships can be seen as closed hierarchical communities and as part of an economic system. Ports are seen as the nexus between the floating communities and the political system of which they were a part ” This means that archaeologists use information obtained from studying these shipwrecks along with documents and other evidence to determine the political and social standings of communities during the specific time period. It is yet another important method to unlocking the mysteries of the past. While it may not be the fanciful search for hidden gold coins as portrayed in the movies, this field also allows historians to discern between fact and fiction as it pertains to pirates—it makes a reality out of treasure hunts and lets the world in on the type of treasure that pirates actually pursued. Because of underwater archaeology, we now know more about pirate lifestyle, their tactics, religion, culture, and overall influence on the world. Knowledge in this area is important also because piracy continues to be a problem in the world today. Although not as prevalent any more, understanding of maritime piracy can help to prevent current and future problems. Underwater archaeology reveals valuable information about piracy that will help in the past, present, and future.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 [Gibbins, David, Adams, Jonathan. "Shipwrecks and Maritime Archaeology." World Archaeology vol. 32, no. 3 (February, 2001): 279-291. t], additional text.

Further reading

  • Anthony,Robert J. “Doc 6: Captain Kidd’s Royal Commision, 1695.” Pirates in the Age of Sail. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007: 75-78
  • Bonner, William H. “The Ballad of Captain Kidd.” American Literature vol. 15, no. 4 (January 1944): 362-380
  • Capelloti, P. J. “Review.” The Public Historian vol. 15, no. 3 (Summer, 1993): 108-110
  • de Bry, John. “Christopher Condent’s Fiery Dragon.” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainesville, FL: Skowronek, Russel K., Ewen, Charles R., The University Press of Florida, 2006. 100-130
  • Gibbins, David, Adams, Jonathan. "Shipwrecks and Maritime Archaeology." World Archaeology vol. 32, no. 3 (February, 2001): 279-291.
  • Goggin, John M. "Underwater Archaeology: Its Nature and Limitations.” American Antiquity vol. 2, no. 3 (January 1960): 348-354
  • Hamilton, Christopher E. “The Pirate Ship Whydah.” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainesville, FL: Skowronek, Russel K., Ewen, Charles R., The University Press of Florida, 2006. 131-159.
  • Lizé, Patrick. “Piracy in the Indian Ocean: Mauritus and the Pirate Ship Speaker.” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainesville, FL: Skowronek, Russel K., Ewen, Charles R., The University Press of Florida, 2006. 82-99
  • Mervine, William M. “Pirates and Privateers of the Delaware Bay and River.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography vol. 32, no. 4 (1908): 463
  • Moore, James T. “Review.” The Journal of Southern History vol. 68 no. 1 (February, 2002): 152
  • O'Connor, Nessa. "Underwater Archaeology: Its Nature and Limitations." Archaeology Ireland vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring, 1989): 26-29.
  • Singh, Hanumant. "Imagining Underwater for Archaeology." Journal of Field Archaeology vol. 27, no. 3 (Autumn 2000): 319-328.
  • Skowronek, Russell K. “X Marks the Spot—Or Does It?” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainesville, FL: Skowronek, Russel K., Ewen, Charles R., The University Press of Florida, 2006. 294
  • Skowronek, R. K., & Ewen, C. R. (2006). “Introduction. ”X marks the spot: the archaeology of piracy. Gainesville, FL: The University Press of Florida
  • Wilde-Ramsing, Mark U. “The Pirate Ship Queen Anne's Revenge.” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainesville, FL: Skowronek, Russel K., Ewen, Charles R., The University Press of Florida, 2006. 160-195.