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Underwater Archeology Projects in Outer Banks Parks Address Intriguing Questions


Northern shore of Roanoke island. What secrets lie under the water nearby? NPS photo.

Where is the rest of the original English settlement site on Roanoke Island? What more can we learn about the location and condition of German submarines that were sunk along the North Carolina coast? These and other interesting questions are being addressed by underwater archeologists working at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and Cape Hatteras National Seashore during May and June.

At Fort Raleigh, a team of divers led by Professor Gordon Watts (Institute of Nautical Archeology) will explore the bottom not far from shore in the “Barrel Beach” area close to The Lost Colony complex. Hoping to find additional evidence of the original English settlement site (1584-1590), the exact location of which remains a mystery, the archeologists will further examine tantalizing geophysical anomalies previously found in the area.

Nearby, a First Colony Foundation project will continue excavating and exploring the Thomas Harriot Trail Site vicinity. Several new finds made there during the past two years have shed light on the past inhabitants of the locale where the first (and tragically unsuccessful) English attempt at colonization of the New World began.

At nearby Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a partnership has been formed to tackle a project of even larger scale and complexity, the Shipwrecks of the Graveyard of the Atlantic project. Drawing on the combined resources of the Field School of Maritime History and Underwater Research, East Carolina University , the National Park Service Submerged Cultural Resource Unit, the University of North Carolina-Coastal Studies Institute, the North Carolina State Underwater Archeology Unit, and the NOAA Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the project will send a team of underwater archeologists to dive and document the wrecks of German submarines located off the North Carolina coast.

Although German submarines sank 60 ships in these waters early in World War II, the U-boats themselves became relatively easy targets later in the war. A number of them were sunk, and nearly all of the U-boat wrecks have been looted by unscrupulous divers.

The archeology divers will also examine and document several shipwrecks close to the Pamlico Sound shoreline in the Salvo Day Use Area vicinity. Some shipwrecks exposed along Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches will also be documented, and remains of the three-masted schooner Laura A. Barnes (wrecked off Nags Head in 1921) will be excavated.

For additional information, contact Cape Hatteras National Seashore headquarters at 252-473-2111.


Information about the original English settlement is a worthwhile goal, considering it's unique place in our history.
But what is it that makes divers that retrieve objects from sunken WWII German subs "unscrupulous" exactly? What is it that makes each and every submarine (or maritime wrecks for that matter) so sacrosanct? Is there some mystery, or history altering aspect about these subs that can only be solved by carefully documenting and examining every detail of these wrecks over a long period of government funded (i.e. taxpayers) projects?
Really, I would like to know. I would think that knowing that "this sub apparently sank here" would be documentation enough.
Maybe I am missing something, i don't know.

The wrecks we're talking about here, dcpack, are not just junk lying on the bottom of the sea. Sunken warships (whether U.S. or foreign) are sovereign shipwreck property protected by federal and state laws. This is an internationally recognized legal principle, and it's been around for a long, long time. There is no experienced wreck diver so ignorant that he/she is not aware of the laws protecting sunken military vessels. Divers who loot sunken U-boats and other warships in America's nearshore waters are criminals who are very much aware that their activities are illegal (which is why they do it on the sly). As far as I'm concerned, those U-boat looters are conceptually no different from the pot hunters who steal Ancestral Puebloan artifacts on Colorado Plateau public lands or the ghouls who sneak into cemeteries to loot graves. And that is why I have called them unscrupulous.

For a succinct statement of the official U.S. position on the looting of sunken military vessels, see this site.

In the broader context of underwater "do's and don'ts", ethical behavior means more than simply obeying the law. (Ethics is about what you should do, not what you can do.) A good place to become acquainted with the broad concepts and principles of underwater archeology ethics is the Lee Spence article you'll find at this site.

When were they doing all this? And is there more information posted here about the progress if they've aleady started?

Were German U-boats the same general design as today's submarines?

This presidential statement about the law on sunken war ships is fine, but obviously the US government ignored the law when they saw an advantage from it. Earlier this year the CIA declassified parts of their reports on the project Azorian, where they recovered parts (including nuclear torpedoes) of a sunken soviet sub in the Pacific ocean in 1974.

My understanding is that the underwater work is scheduled for May and June, Anon. If you want more specific information about the project, try calling the park at the number I provided at the end of the article. I must confess that I don't know much about the evolution of submarine design over the past 65 years. I do know, however, that a term like "general design" leaves a lot of room for legitimate differences of interpretation.

MRC, do you mean (gasp!) that the U.S. government did not care about the dotting of i's and the crossing of t's when messing around with sunken Soviet warships? This is outrageous! Where do I file my protest?!

I was also under the impression that the sunken ships were also the de facto tomb of the lost sailors, whatever their nationality, and should be respected as such.
I see a big difference in groups of people salvaging the wrecks (or parts thereof) for cultural or historical exploration in order to share their findings with the rest of the world and private citizens diving the wreck to 'take a little something for themselves'.

Just one person's two cents.

I also wonder why these subs are so important that we need something else in place to protect them. There are laws on the book that could be enforced if anyone cared to enforce them. Why do we need a new

German U-boats are fascinating, but we have well preserved examples in museums already, and even a couple on land that are just sitting and deteriorating because no one wants them.

Again, if there are laws on the books, and we know who's looting, why not just enforce the laws? Part of the reason this stuff goes on is because everyone knows the US Navy does not care. I've seen people take pieces of metal from war wrecks on a public dive boat full of strangers and then show everyone what it is they found. That's not exactly 'on the sly'.

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