Artifacts To Be Recovered: Historic Shipwreck

May 13, 2011

This Summer the Bermuda Government’s Marine Heritage Section at the Department of Conservation Services will be partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’  [NOAA] Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in the rescue of artifacts from the infamous American Civil War shipwreck the Mary Celestia sunk in 1864.

Dr Philippe Rouja, Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks, and Dr Jim Delgado the Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries will be co leading the rescue effort this coming June.

The Marie Celestia is one of Bermuda’s most celebrated and infamous shipwrecks. A civil war era paddle steamer purpose built to run the Northern blockade to supply the Confederate South, she sank off Bermuda in mysterious circumstances in 1864 while being piloted by Bermudian – Mr. John Virgin.

An archaeologically significant site, the Mary Celestia is also one of the most heavily dived historic sites in Bermuda and is a significant point of interest for divers and historians with a passion for the history of the American Civil War.

The video below is courtesy of

In January of this year after storms removed sand from the bow section of the Marie Celestia a well-preserved, corked bottle of wine was recovered. This most recent exposure also revealed the top of a wooden crate. This discovery followed a similar find after hurricane waves pounded Bermuda in September 2009.

It appears that a unique portion of the Civil War cargo intended for the southern port of Wilmington remains, in part, inside the bow.

Ongoing storms continually expose this area and place remaining artifacts at risk; and the Government said they want to act swiftly to preserve them.

In 2004 when Dr Rouja became the Custodian of Historic Wreck at the Department of Conservation Services he began to conduct post hurricane assessments of shipwrecks that were the most likely to be heavily affected by the huge surf that pounds Bermuda’s South Shore during such events.

Dr Rojua says, “I decided it was important to conduct these surveys after hearing reports from some of Bermuda’s most experienced divers and dive shops that hurricane Fabian in 2003 had exposed a significant portion of the Mary Celestia never seen before, including remnants of broken artifacts specifically in and near the bow.”

After the hurricane season in 2006, Dr Rouja found several very large blocks (large wooden pulleys) in a hole created by currents at the rear of the bow of the Mary Celestia. A general assessment of the items was made and after deliberations with the Historic Wrecks Authority [HWA] it was decided to label and bag the items, dig a deep hole and replace them inside the wreck covered by a layer of sand bags, which is standard archaeological in situ preservation.

The situation at the Mary Celestia remained relatively stable until 2009 when swells from Hurricane Bill cleared close to six feet of sand from the entire site revealing the buried stern section of the ship. The wreck was closed by the HWA to recreational diving for three days during which time all of the sand naturally returned.

Dr Rouja comments, “This shipwreck is 60 feet down and close to 130 feet long – so just in the area of the wreck we are talking about a football field size area of sand, six feet deep, being swept away and completely returning over the course of 3 or four days. Unfortunately the sandbags and the bagged artifacts from 2006 were also swept away but the storm miraculously revealed a single corked wine bottle deep in the front section of the bow.”

“This discovery prompted us to increase the number of surveys of this specific part of the wreck and begin thinking about a rescue operation. The 2010 hurricane season though uneventful in terms of direct hits again had high surf conditions affecting the Southshore from passing storms.

“When we returned to the site after massive surf conditions were experienced on Southshore we found that the stern part of the ship was again very exposed, with probably over 5 feet of sand swept away, but oddly the level of sand in and around the bow had actually increased which was a relief.”

Dr Rouja continued, “In this case the sand did not return for several months. However in January 2011 after a particularly bad set of winter gales we decided to do another survey and some filming in the clearer winter water. There was little change in the general level of sand on the site except that several feet of sand had been swept from the bow exposing not only another corked bottle of wine but also the corner of what appears to be a wooden case of wine.

“On deck, at the bow of the ship, is where the primary winch is located and the hold underneath is used to house articles that are related to the running of the ship; anchors, chains, sails etc. This is not an area one would expect to find general cargo.

“Directly below the winch inside the hull one can clearly see rolls of chain. The wooden blocks or pulleys that were found in 2006 fit perfectly with what one would expect to find in this area. However the presence of corked wine bottles and perhaps the case they came from stands out as quite irregular.

“We initially speculated that if she sank bow first the wine bottles and case may have tumbled there from the general cargo area at the time of her sinking. However this area, though seemingly relatively open today, would have in 1864 consisted of a series of small bulkheads, with small hatches leading into them. This means that these items did not come to be located here accidentally. I think we can safely speculate that these items were put there, hidden there, quite on purpose, representing someone’s private stash of contraband.”

With the discovery of the wine and the knowledge that even winter storms could impact this site and potentially expose and sweep away artifacts it became clear that something needed to be done to protect the case and any other related items that might still be there.

Harold Conyers the Chairman of the Historic Wrecks Authority said, “We of course are pleased that these objects are being secured and are excited by the discovery and partnership aspects of this project. Coupled with this are important benefits that extend far beyond protecting the shipwreck itself. These lie in developing the broader context and meaning of shipwrecks in Bermuda through the creation of engaging local education programmes and the enhancement of our tourism product in authentic and stimulating ways.”

The Mary Celestia is one the most dived and enjoyed shipwrecks in Bermuda depended upon by Bermuda’s dive shops and enjoyed by many local residents and tourists and it is important to keep it open to the diving public.

Dr Rouja advised, “The HWA thought it important to keep the wreck site ‘open’ so in the interim we have done the best we can to protect this particular area. We have placed a layer of sandbags over the artifacts and now close to 2 feet of the sand has naturally returned on top of the bags. In addition we have netted off the inside of the bow and placed signage indicating that this part of the shipwreck is now restricted from diving at least until after the rescue operation.”

The Mary Celestia has had several pre-disturbance surveys conducted through the National Museum of Bermuda over the last few decades and has done a great deal of archival investigation trying to unravel the mystery of its sinking.

Dr Harris, Director of the National Museum of Bermuda and member of the HWA said, “We are delighted that the Custodian of Historic Wrecks and the Bermuda Government will be working with NOAA and Dr Jim Delgado, an old friend and longtime visitor to the Island, to investigate further on this very historic shipwreck of the American Civil War period.”

Dr Rouja added, “The shipwreck of the Mary Celestia is an artifact in its own right. Unlike almost any other shipwreck in Bermuda it speaks directly to our wider Atlantic maritime history. It is the perfect historical artifact from which to investigate the intricate network of social, political and business relationships Bermuda maintained and tell the wider ‘Atlantic’ story of the American Civil war.”

The Minister of Public works Derrick Burgess said, “It is great to be partnering with our American counterparts in this endeavor and I think everyone is thrilled at the prospect of finding something new and interesting that tells us about both the shipwreck and the American Civil war. If the bottles of wine happen to be full and the case is in good shape and we can identify the maker then that will just be the icing on the cake.”

The Director of the Bermuda Department of Tourism Mr. William Griffith added, “It is of great importance to our cultural history that stories like this are emphasized as they assist with our efforts in attracting more visitors to our island. With the unearthing coinciding with 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it heightens the interest in the effort being undertaken. We wish all those who are working on the project great success as they will certainly enrich our tourism product and add to the lure of Bermuda.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Conservation Services has been working closely with the office of Marine Sanctuaries of NOAA for the past 18 months as part of the team seeking broad protection for the Sargasso Sea.

An intergovernmental team has been pulled together that will excavate, record and recover the contents of a section of the bow starting June 15th until the 25th.

Andrew Pettit, Director of Conservation Services says, “Considering that the site is a valuable tourism commodity we want to be sure that all opportunities are taken advantage of to enhance and invigorate our diving and tourism product.

“The site will be closed during the excavation period to general recreational diving but the dive shops will run specific planned dive tours of the site during the excavation time period, something they are quite excited about.”
Local production company LookBermuda has been shadowing the Custodian for the past several years documenting this process and will be fully embedded with the dive team filming for their upcoming film on the Mary Celestia. See film trailer:

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Category: All, Environment

Comments (1)

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  1. Phrases that grate says:

    Nothing to do with this story but does anyone know why the person charged with taking care of new wrecks and the like (The Collector of Customs in Bda)is called the “Receiver of Wreck” and not the Receiver of Wrecks, plural? The singular format is a world-wide one but I can’t find anything that answers my question.