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Treasures of the Deep

Plunge into the depths of local waters to discover long hidden historical secrets

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There is a great deal of history submerged under Rhode Island waters. Since 1992, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) has been working to map and preserve artifacts from sunken ships, some hundreds of years old.

The wrecks include 13 transport ships sunk in Newport Harbor to protect the British from the advancing French fleet in 1778. One of those ships is believed to be the Endeavour, once captained by famed British explorer, navigator and cartographer Captain James Cook.

D. K. (Kathy) Abbass is RIMAP’s founder and executive director. She formerly taught anthropology and sociology in Virginia at Norfolk State University. “My Ph.D. is in anthropology. I realized everything had to go by boat, so I did a couple of post docs in maritime history,” says D.K. Intrigued by culture change, she decided to investigate other academic interests, including learning to sail and scuba dive, and is now certified by the state as a historian and archaeologist at the highest level.

This search for maritime history in local waters has sparked international interest, as representatives from the Australian National Maritime Museum have traveled across the world to Rhode Island. They would like to be part of the team that discovers the Endeavour, which Australians consider to be their country’s founding vessel.

Because of the historic importance of the Endeavour and the transport fleet, RIMAP, a 501(c)3 not for profit, undertook a long process to protect the vessels. Historic shipwrecks are already federally protected, but there was the possibility that a salvage award would be taken, despite their considerable and continual efforts. Members of RIMAP partnered with then-Rhode Island attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse to protect the fleet in federal court. With RIMAP as its agent, the state of Rhode Island took a salvage award and later took title to the fleet.

The initial search for the transport fleet involved an underwater survey of the waters surrounding Rhode Island. The search yielded a great deal of information, not all of it helpful. The survey, finished in May of 2013, noted many locations deserving further study. D. K. says it was not possible at the outset to guess whether each location might be a ship, an outcropping of rock or something completely unexpected. “Could be geology; could be modern trash. We’ve actually found a couple of torpedoes,” says D. K. “The EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team from the Navy came [but] they were not live torpedoes. Since they were inert there was no reason to do anything about them.”

Members of RIMAP – experienced volunteers under the direction of professionals – have made multiple dives on nine ships that meet the general size of the Endeavour in recent years, and in the summer and fall of this year, as well. Scheduled dives into September continued to gather information on the ships located, but it is a painstaking process and definitive identification might not be possible after so many decades have passed. Each discovered ship is carefully measured, and logs are kept of every dive. Artifacts found – whether of wood, textiles, ceramics or glass – are preserved and studied, as they could potentially yield more information about the ship from which they were removed. Items found so far include a glass bottle, ceramic teapot and lead collar. “It’s very complicated,” D.K. says of the long processes in working to identify ships in the transport fleet.

RIMAP has been looking into establishing a museum to publicly display the artifacts found on the historic ships. They plan to open a facility at Butt’s Hill Fort in Portsmouth, the largest Revolutionary War earthwork in southern New England, and the center of the American line in the August 1778 Battle of Rhode Island. So far, RIMAP and NewPort Architecture have created a preliminary plan for the facility at Butt’s Hill Fort with a U.S. National Park Service grant. Their idea is to establish a facility that can both preserve the found artifacts for future generations, and operate as a museum for them to be viewed by the public. But additional funds are needed to complete the plan. RIMAP receives no money from the state and is dependent on grants and donations.

Even beyond donations, RIMAP’s greatest resource is its volunteers, according to D.K. Each volunteer is required to take at least an Intro to Archaeology course with the organization before helping with projects underwater or related projects on land. RIMAP’s secretary, Barrington resident Deb Dwyer, is one of the long-term volunteers.

Deb says she first got involved with RIMAP in the late ‘90s because the history intrigued her. “I dived for lobsters or for pleasure on vacation, so this was totally something different,” she says, explaining her fascination with “the history of Captain Cook and how he sailed around the world… that one of the frigates in Newport Harbor might be his.”

Although the sunken transport vessels have received the most interest of late, Rhode Island has the most shipwrecks per square mile of any state. Shipwrecks in Rhode Island waters include ships from Colonial-era, steamships, industrial barges, 19th century yachts, as well as more modern vessels. Among the many sunken ships RIMAP has investigated over the years is a steamship called the Empire State.

Deb was assigned the Empire State as her own boat to map in 2001 after she had dived on a number of boats in Newport Harbor with RIMAP teams. With diving partner John Hoagland, also a RIMAP volunteer, Deb mapped out the location of a steamship sunk in the shallow waters of a popular fishing spot alongside the wall in Independence Park in Bristol. The steamship caught fire and sunk in May of 1887 and now rests in the shoal. It is one of many historic ships that exist under the waves unbeknownst to most Rhode Islanders. Deb says she and John used lines, a compass and measuring tape to discover how the ship is oriented in the water. This was not easy. Deb says once the silt is disturbed, visibility is almost non-existent, and that the murky water demands the work be done by touch. In fact, it was not uncommon for them to come across fishing line or hooks in their dive gloves. Deb explains, “It’s like you can’t see your hand in front of your face. The visibility is very poor.”

Part of the assignment was to measure the silt, and they found it was as deep as six feet in some places. “Everything that wasn’t covered by a hood or a mask or the regulator was covered in mud,” says Deb. “The underwater visibility is just dreadful,” adds D.K, echoing that it is an ongoing issue.

The history is important to preserve, and divers and others out on the water need to respect the archaeological sites, according to D.K. “If it’s a historic shipwreck, somebody else owns it,” she explains. Despite these challenges, however, members of RIMAP continue to document marine history that otherwise might not have come to light.

Come hell or high water, RIMAP continues onwards, delving deep in order to preserve the history immersed in the coastal waters of the Ocean State.

For more information on the ongoing work of RIMAP, or to volunteer, visit www.RIMAP.org