SAVANNAH, Ga. — The odd skeleton of wooden beams barely poked above the sands, exposed just enough by wind and tides for a beachcomber to report the curious find.
Fred Boyles, National Park Service superintendent on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, says the buried beams could have easily been overlooked as ordinary flotsam washed ashore on the beach. But archaeologists called to the remote Atlantic coastal island spent days last week unearthing an astonishing find: an old wooden shipwreck held together with wooden pegs, its backstory lost in time.
“Someone had the foresight to say that doesn’t just look like normal wood, and thank goodness they called us,” Boyles said of the island resident, who stumbled on the wreck around Christmas. “Frankly, had I been driving on the beach, I would’ve ridden right by.”
This 80-foot-long fragment of history, with some of its wooden siding still intact, is believed to date to the mid-1800s based on its construction, said Michael Steiber, a National Park Service archaeologist trying to crack the mystery of the ship’s origin.
It might have been delivering supplies to Southern plantation owners who grew cotton, corn and rice on Cumberland Island for decades after the Revolutionary War, Steiber said. Or perhaps it was a Confederate blockade runner that sank during the Civil War.
There is no shortage of potential suspects on Cumberland Island, a place steeped in history. The park service manages the island off the Southeast coast today as a federally protected wilderness.
“This has been a high-traffic area ever since the Spanish and the British started colonizing,” Steiber said. “There are a lot of possibilities.”
The archaeologists made copious notes during their days of excavation on the site last week. They drew maps and collected wood samples for testing. Now they are turning to the historical records for clues.
Early Spanish settlers operated missions on the island for roughly a century, from 1587 to 1684.
The English arrived not long after Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe founded Georgia as the 13th British colony in 1733. In the 1800s, plantations thrived on Cumberland Island until the region’s economy collapsed after the Civil War.
Yet identifying the wreck is proving elusive.
The archaeologists found no telltale artifacts amid the wreckage that might betray its secrets. Nor was there any trace of a name imprinted on the rotting wood frame, which measures roughly 80 feet-by-20 feet. It apparently came from the ship’s midsection.
“The fragment we got obviously washed ashore during a major storm and the rest of the ship itself is probably off in the water,” Steiber said.
Parts of the wreckage were under up to 3 feet of sand, he added. “We think it’s been buried for quite a long time.”
Reachable only by boat, the island draws about 43,500 visitors each year.
Many are drawn by its natural beauty and its history, old and new. Cumberland Island was nearly abandoned when millionaire Thomas Carnegie, brother of Andrew Carnegie, established a winter retreat on its 24 square miles in the 1880s. His heirs sold the island to the federal government in 1972.
However, tourists planning trips to Cumberland Island shouldn’t be adding the shipwreck to their sightseeing lists.
The National Park Service won’t divulge the location of the wreckage. Park rangers figure it’s unlikely many visitors would find it on their own, considering the island has 17 miles of beach.
And after three days of carefully uncovering and documenting the wreckage, workers wrapped up their work Thursday by taking one final precaution to protect the site.
“We covered it back up,” Boyles said, meaning they buried their discovery again beneath the sand.
Steiber said that was the best possible option. The rotting wreckage seemed too fragile to be removed intact, he said, and preserving it in an indoor space would be expensive.
Leaving the wreckage exposed on the beach would only lead to further destruction from wind and rain, not to mention possible damage and pilfering by island visitors.
“It’s kind of sad and disheartening after spending that much time uncovering it,” Steiber said. But he concluded: “it’s safer for the wreck to be left where it is.”