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Scientific Voyage

Instructor uncovers the mysteries of a centuries-old shipwreck

Nearly 160 years ago, a storm exposed the timbers of a shipwreck buried in the mud on Cape Cod. But the intrigue surrounding this vessel had only just begun.

In recent years, Dr. Calvin Mires, a maritime archaeologist who teaches in Bridgewater State University’s Department of Anthropology, sought evidence to confirm the long-held belief that it is a ship that ran aground in 1626. That would make the 40-foot vessel, named Sparrow-Hawk after the storm unearthed it, the oldest known surviving wreck in the original 13 colonies.

“The challenge was there had never been any archeological studies to determine if the ship is from 1626 or is some other sailing vessel,” Mires said, noting there are thousands of wrecks off Cape Cod. “So, we needed to figure out how to start scientifically determining if it was from 1626 or thereabouts.”

Researchers are confident the 1626 wreck occurred because Gov. William Bradford documented it in his journal. Bound for Virginia with tobacco farmers (including Irish indentured servants), the ship ran aground in Orleans, which is where Sparrow-Hawk was found. Nauset tribe members aided passengers and crew of the doomed vessel. Natives guided two survivors to Plymouth, where Bradford sent a shallop to rescue others who were stranded.

The indigenous people displayed “lifesaving kindness and hospitality,” Mires said.

Mires worked with a team that included Dr. Donna Curtin of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum, maritime expert Fred Hocker, and timber specialist Aoife Daly in the search for evidence.

The first clue came when Dr. Hocker recognized a timber from the ship’s bilge pump. He had also seen that part on the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank in 1628.

The team also used radioactive dating and dendrochronology. Dendrochronology uses the pattern of tree rings (which form as the tree grows) to help determine when and where loggers felled the tree from which the timber was cut.

Their research indicated timbers used to make the Sparrow-Hawk were from English trees cut in the late 16th century or early 17th century, providing evidence that Sparrow-Hawk could be the 1626 wreck.

“We’ll probably never be 100 percent certain,” said Mires, whose research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It just increased the likelihood it is.”

The surviving timbers are housed at Pilgrim Hall Museum, which plans to create an exhibit with the wood and 3D imagery to better tell this relatively unknown part of American history.

“You have historic significance right there,” Mires said of the ship’s potential age. “It perhaps brought some of the first Irish immigrants to the colonies.”

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