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Depths of Knowledge

Summer program allows area students to examine shipwrecks
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News Feature

Allison Carter and Alexander Hersh showed unwavering concentration recently as they handled a piece of wood at Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Why? Well, this wasn’t an ordinary piece of wood. It is believed to be part of the Sparrow-Hawk, a ship from the 1600s that brought Europeans to the New World.

“It was a little bit nerve-wracking to be honest,” said Alexander, a Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School student from Brockton.

“You didn’t want to ruin something 400 years old,” added Allison, who is from Raynham and attends Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School. 

Allison, Alex and fellow high schoolers put their dexterity and newfound scientific skills to the test thanks to the weeklong program “The Graveyard of the Atlantic: Maritime Archaeology in Massachusetts” run by Bridgewater State University’s Center for the Advancement of STEM Education.

Students analyzed and measured pieces from the Sparrow-Hawk and worked on creating a digital recreation of the vessel, which brought about two dozen people from Europe to America in 1626. Bound for Virginia, the ship ended up wrecked on Cape Cod. Natives guided two survivors to Plymouth, where Gov. William Bradford sent a shallop to rescue other stranded passengers and crew. They spent almost a year in Plymouth before traveling to Virginia. 

The approximately 40-foot long Sparrow-Hawk became buried in sand and mud in Orleans. People removed the remnants after they emerged in an 1862 storm. They are in storage at Pilgrim Hall, but museum officials would like to put them on display in 2022 accompanied by a digital version of the ship.

The maritime archaeology class is one of a series of Summer Science Academy programs BSU offered in July for middle or high school students. The programs are designed to pique students’ interest in science as they partake in hands-on investigations and lead presentations about what they’ve learned.

During a different shipwreck class, one geared for middle schoolers, students explored the remains of the steamship City of Taunton. They measured pieces resting along the shore of the Taunton River in Somerset. 

Students in both courses learned about ship construction and how to map a wreck.

The high school students helped researchers better understand the Sparrow-Hawk, said Dr. Calvin Mires, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology who led the class and is helping the museum research the vessel.

“You’re the ‘Pilgrims’ of this project because it hasn’t been done,” Dr. Mires told the students. “You get to set the standard."

Imagine the pieces of the stern and floor timbers as patients. Take your time and really get to know the wood’s intricacies, he said.

Dr. Mires foresees work on the Sparrow-Hawk becoming a research project for BSU students. 

With 109 timbers to analyze, there are ample opportunities for student involvement, said Pilgrim Hall Executive Director Dr. Donna Curtin, who praised the partnership between Dr. Mires and the museum.

“All of these are going to be the pieces of the puzzle to create the picture of what this vessel looked like,” she said. 

The ship, Dr. Curtin said, carried the first known Irish to come to New England.

“It really does help illustrate the immigrant aspect of Plymouth Colony,” she said. “The Pilgrims were English immigrants. Plymouth Rock is a symbol of our immigrant nation. This particular ship allows us to tell the story of Plymouth people don’t expect.”

The vessel’s connection to history wasn’t lost on the students or several BSU undergraduates who helped run the class.

“As a biologist, I’ve never really looked into how history connects with STEM,” said Megan Norton, ’19, a biology major who hopes to become a teacher. “It has definitely given me an opportunity to see those connections.”

Alexander appreciated the opportunity to conduct field work while only a high school student, while classmate Allison enjoyed the trailblazing aspect.

“It’s really inspiring that you’re working with something people could look at in the future and be inspired by,” Allison said. “I’m contributing to something that hasn’t been documented before.” (Story and photos by Brian Benson, University News)

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