The 1998-2000 dig at the Bear Trap community in Ocean View was just another chapter in Delaware’s archaeological history but not the most recent. In 2004, a dredging project off of the coast of Lewes uncovered a spectacular find.
The project unearthed artifacts from the first British shipwreck to be investigated in the North Atlantic. Most of those artifacts were washed on shore, buried under tons of sand. Some were found by local residents who reported the find to local officials. Since that time in 2004, Dan Griffith, a local archaeologist who has come out of retirement to explore the project, has been directing the investigation.
“This is not something we went looking for,” Griffith said. “We didn’t know there was a ship there.”
Griffith said that he thinks the British merchant ship wrecked off of the Cape Henlopen coast somewhere between 1769 and 1775 on its way to Philadelphia. In the late 18th century, and before and after, all of the ships coming into Philadelphia from overseas would travel through the Delaware capes, which then essentially served as the city’s ports, Griffith said told the crowd on Sunday at the opening of the Bear Trap historical exhibit.
From findings, Griffith and his colleagues concluded that the ship was carrying merchandise from England, Holland, Germany, South Africa and China, which retailers in Philadelphia had probably ordered but likely never received.
The find draws the picture of an 18th century worldwide market, which was apparently booming.
Initially, Griffith and his team found more than 10,000 artifacts before allowing the public back on the beach to search for more themselves. More than 130 families turned in more than 20,000 artifacts to a museum in Lewes for documentation.
Mineral-water bottles, pieces of Chinese porcelain and European ceramics, including English creamware, were among the findings.
After scanning the shipwrecked area with sonar technology, Griffith noted that all of the artifacts came from near the bow of the ship and most of the wreck had been left undisturbed by the dredge. The keel of the British merchant ship is about 80 feet long, according to Griffith, and the stern of the ship is facing north. Upon receipt of a grant, Griffith said that he and his team plan to dive to the ship once more this summer before leaving future findings to future archaeologists so they can write more chapters in the book of Delaware archaeology.
Griffith said that Delaware archaeology dates to the 19th century but it picked up speed in 1931 with the inception of the Archaeology society of Delaware. The society was most interested in studying Native Americans, according to Griffith.
With a similar interest in Native American history, the Sussex Society of Archaeology was formed in 1948.
In 1965, the State of Delaware hired its first full-time archaeologist one year after development destroyed a Native American site in Kent County, Griffith said in Sunday’s presentation. Now, a state division is devoted to Delaware’s history. In the state division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, employees unearth, document and analyze historical artifacts, then present them to the public in various museums and exhibits across Delaware.