Resurrecting the Notorious Queen Anne's Revenge: David Moore on Blackbeard & maritime archaeology
May of 1718 was a particularly stressful time for the good people of Charles Town, South Carolina. Not only were they engaged in warfare with a number of indigenous tribes, an 80-foot pirate ship accompanied by three sloops was moored right outside their harbor. The small fleet was abuzz with more than 400 crewmembers preparing to execute the orders of their charismatic captain Edward Thatch, otherwise known as Blackbeard. A master of psychological manipulation, dramatic presentation, and effective negotiation, his menacing flagship – christened Queen Anne’s Revenge – was part of his widely successful intimidation tactic; and the residents of Charles Town got to experience it for themselves.
“The story of Blackbeard and Queen Anne’s Revenge is so wide-reaching and so phenomenal, we can spend the next two days talking about it,” says David Moore in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. The nautical archaeology curator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort is a maritime archaeologist, historian, and leading expert on Queen Anne’s Revenge Project. He is also the person responsible for the underwater mapping of the entire site as the archeological efforts progress. “I started out in engineering, that’s where my technical drawing skills were developed. It took me about two years to figure out that I wasn’t going to get along with calculus – ever.”
Since November 21st, 1996, when the shipwreck was first located, more than 250,000 artifacts have been recovered, including cannon from different countries, glass stemware and pewter ware, syringes, gold dust, and a whole lot more. The near pristine condition of some of these findings is shedding a new light on the world’s most infamous pirate. ARTpublika Magazine spoke to David Moore about maritime archaeology, his love of Blackbeard, and the incredible discoveries made on the world’s most intriguing pirate ship, the notorious Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Where were you born?
Eden – as in the garden of – in North Carolina.
What did you like to do growing up?
Before I got into organized sports in junior high school, I was riding the neighborhood and cruising the woods on my bicycle. I also lived at the pool during the summer. By and large, I grew up in water, and loved it when we took family vacations to the coast. I guess that’s where I found my first appreciation for the water, particularly the ocean, but I never really thought seriously about a career in and around the ocean until a little later.
How did you get into scuba diving?
I got certified to scuba dive right after I graduated from high school. I was a lifeguard that summer, so I’d take my tanks to the pool and volunteer to clean the bottom of it with a vacuum just to get used to the experience of breathing under water; it took a while for me to get over the abnormality of it. In fact, my dad had a pool in his backyard and I’d take my dive gear over there, especially at night; there was something fascinating to me about sitting on the bottom of the pool and looking through 12 feet of crystal clear water up at the moon. To me, that was just amazing.
How did you get into pirates?
I read a book, Blackbeard The Pirate, A Reappraisal of His Life and Times (1974) [by Robert Earl Lee] when I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in the late 70s.
[Around 1986 or 1987, when I was working at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Florida] a treasure hunter [Phil Masters (1937 – 2007)] came to North Carolina and applied to look for a Spanish treasure ship, El Salvador. While he was getting a permit from the state to look for that wreck, guys who I had worked with previously gave him a copy of the prospectus that I’d written as a graduate student at East Carolina University on Blackbeard’s flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge and another, smaller ship. So, he went back home to New York and did some research of his own. [He] came back a year later and amended his contract with the state to include the two pirate wrecks.
So, he was now looking for three shipwrecks here, which didn’t sit well with me. But I was stuck in Florida. We began to exchange phone calls and then, a little later on, exchange emails. I eventually met him at a shipwreck conference in Key West. I didn’t trust him, because he was a treasure hunter. He didn’t trust me, because I was an archeologist. But, one thing led to another, and I got a job working back up here in March of 1996. Phil hired a guy from Florida by the name of Mike Daniels, who went out and found the wreck 8 months after I came back to this exact area. I was at the right place, at the right time, with the right research in my files to be included in the project by default, and I’ve been working on it ever since.
Phil Masters was the owner of Intersal, Inc?
He was the president of Intersal. Mike Daniels was the director of marine operations. When Daniels was hired in July, [the three of us] sat down together and went through all of the historical research Phil and I had compiled. We came to a decision about where Mike would go looking.
I was convinced that the wreck was out on where the old bar used to be. The thing about the bar off of Beaufort was that the natural sediment that normally moves through the area was essentially cut off during the first part of this century. When Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground in 1718, it was only in about 10 feet of water, but since the Corps of Engineers had been dredging the inlet, cutting off that natural sand-flow that normally moves down the beach, the shipwreck now is a little below 20 feet.
So, after you shared the information, what happened next?
I [thought that] Blackbeard would have at least been aiming for the early natural channel on the west side, so I basically told Mike that if we don’t find anything over there, we could go back over to the east. It took him a couple of months to get Phil’s boat back in condition; it was about 75 feet long, called The Pelican, and it had been sitting in a boat yard for a couple of years. By the time he finished, there was not a lot of money left and it was already November. You really don’t want to be working out here in November, but [because] they spent all that time and effort getting the boat ready, they figured they’d go out there anyway.
So they put together a crew of 5 or 6 people, went out and found a couple of targets. He calls me up on the 20th, while I’m sitting here at the museum, and says: “I think I found your wreck!” ”Really? Sounds interesting,” I reply. “Well, we found a musket, an intact musket,” he continues, “found some ammunition for it.“ “Really?” I say. “Yeah, conical shaped,” he replies.” And I knew he was testing me, because conical shaped ammo didn’t come in until the 1800s, about 100 years later.
He calls me again the next day, around the same time, and says: “I think I found your wreck.” “Where are you now?” I reply. “Seriously, we’re sitting a top a pile of cannons,” he says, “[there are about] 10 cannons down there and a couple of big anchors and they look right, like the right period.” And that’s what we’ve been working on for the last 20 something years. The interesting thing is, had he waited one more day, it would have been the anniversary of Blackbeard’s death; he was killed on the 22nd of November. But, you can’t have everything.
But, you found his ship on the anniversary of Blackbeard’s last full day of life.
How many cannons are recovered?
I think there are 24 recovered, and about 7 – give or take – still on the bottom. I’m hoping we will get to 40, because that was reportedly what she was carrying.
If the wreck was found on November 21st, 1996, why did it take so long to publicly acknowledge it was Blackbeard’s flagship?
At first, it was easier to prove that it was not Queen Anne’s Revenge than to prove it was. Beaufort, in that time period, was a little sleepy fishing village with about 400 people. So ships that size wouldn’t have been coming in here; smaller sloops, yeah, maybe, but even they would be few and far between because there was no industry. The only ship recorded to have wrecked around here during that period was Queen Anne’s Revenge. Finally, the evidence had grown to a point where it couldn’t be anything else.
Some of us, including myself, have thought all along that the wreck was Queen Anne’s Revenge. About two years or so in to the project, when we started finding gold dust in and around the artifacts, is what did it for me. We know La Concorde, the French slave ship that Blackbeard captured and turned into his flagship, was carrying 20 pounds of gold dust; we have that both in the French records and the English records. But, the Department stayed on the safe side until 2004, when the ship was put on The National Register of Historic Places.
How does an archeologist apply his or her training to a project like this?
Sometimes shipwrecks are located by accident. But, normally, someone conducts a lot of historical research to find out anything and everything they can about a particular shipwreck. I was interested in finding something associated with the most notorious pirate who ever sailed. So, I compiled information not only on Blackbeard and his associates and adversaries, but also on the ships that he commanded, the ships that he captured, and the ships that chased him around – most of them being the Royal Navy.
Then, you sit down and formulate a plan. Where do you want to look? Where is the shipwreck [likely] going to be? And, in the case of Queen Anne’s Revenge, where is the original location of the old bar offshore? Then, you have to put together the appropriate personnel with the appropriate equipment with the appropriate boats that will get all of you out to the site so you can start digging. Most of the time archeologists use one of two things: an induction dredge, which is essentially a vacuum cleaner that uses water pressure to suck sand off the bottom; or an airlift, which is [when a wide tube is lowered to the excavation site and compressed air is pumped from the surface into its lower end, so that when the air bubbles come up, they create suction that pulls up water, sand, and other small objects.]
The airlift could be a little messy and you can’t really collect little stuff. We have to collect all the material, [including] small things like trade beads, coins, and gold dust. First, we map out units using [a method called grid searching.] [After that,] a diver comes along and starts tagging the larger artifacts, while I record the tag numbers on my map where I plot all of the material. Once the objects are mapped and tagged on my slate, they can [be recovered]. After we get all the big visible stuff, we use the dredges to suck out the bottom of each unit – about 2 feet deep. So, all of that small material goes up the dredge and into a sluice box that filters out the tiny artifacts like gold dust, which is heavier than sand. And then everything gets tagged and put into the database and then we start doing research on all of it.
You have been a maritime archaeologist for over thirty-five years, and conducted field research on over 300 shipwrecks dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. How many times did you dive for work?
One of the first things you learn while training for a scuba diving certification is keeping a log of all your dives: depth, time, bottom time, all of that type of stuff. I’m somewhere between 4000 and 5000 dives.
What is one of your favorite artifacts from the excavation efforts so far?
One of the first 5 things that were uncovered on this site was a bronze bell. It was cleaned up fairly quickly and is now on display downstairs in the Blackbeard Queen Anne’s Revenge exhibit. It has an inscription, ANO DE 1705, meaning the date. And the engraving, IHS MARIA, which is very much a Catholic inscription [translating to Jesus and the Virgin Mary.] It’s an Iberian bell; it could be Spanish or Portuguese, but I suspect Spanish.
The team found the remains of “16 tiny fragments of paper ‘in a mess of wet sludge’ that had been in the chamber of a cannon.”
That was something special, because it had print on it and no one in our lab knew how to handle paper; it is extremely difficult. So we took it to some art conservators in Raleigh and let them handle it, and they did a very good job. A couple of words were discerned on the paper and through trial and error lab personnel actually identified the book the print came out of: [A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711 (1712) by Captain Edward Cooke]
Once they gave me the title of the book, I went online and found five original copies of it both [in the states] and abroad; they were anywhere from $1400 to $6000, [but] we found that the cheapest one was at an antique bookstore out in Denver, Colorado. It just so happened that our curator of maritime research was in Denver, Colorado, for just 24 hours; so he jumped in a car and went down to the antique bookstore to check out the condition of the book and make sure all of the pages were there. As it turned out, it was in extremely good shape – even better than the $6000 copy! Now it’s downstairs on display along with images of the paper showing the print; we’ve even got the book turned to the appropriate page. It is rare to find any sort of print on paper on a shipwreck, so we were very fortunate in that regard.
Is there anything you’d like to share that hasn’t been addressed?
What I like to tell students and the kids is that working on these shipwrecks and researching their historical background is about as close to a time machine as we’ll ever be able to get.
*Note: All images of artifacts are taken from the Queen Anne's Revenge Project. Edward Thatch (also spelled Thach, Tach, and Teach).