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Artist rendering of the infamous pirate Blackbeard
Blackbeard, the infamous pirate, was said to have set parts of his enormous beard on fire just to intimidate his enemies in battle.

Tiny pirate papers

Photo illustration by Jeffrey Chase | Photos courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Melissa Tedone

UD conservators help North Carolina analyze paper fragments recovered from Blackbeard's sunken flagship

If you wrote this into a script, only a sci-fi producer would buy it.

But researchers, divers and art conservators -- including a team from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation -- have discovered and analyzed paper fragments retrieved from the shipwreck North Carolina archaeologists say is the Queen Anne's Revenge, flagship of an 18th-century pirate whose name sent a chill into the bone marrow of anyone whose path might cross his.

Blackbeard. The infamous pirate was said to have set parts of his enormous beard on fire just to intimidate his enemies in battle. So what can be made of these paper fragments -- and how in the world could they have survived almost 300 years under the sea?

Paper fragment recovered from pirate Blackbeard's ship

The arguments against such a find are too many to list, but here are a few of the biggest:

  • The paper fragments were found in a cannon's chamber that has been submerged on the ocean floor off the coast of North Carolina since 1718.
  • After it was retrieved from the ocean floor, the chamber spent more than five months in a series of desalinization baths meant to carefully remove the heavy salt deposits that had built up around it.
  • The fragments were found in a mucky mass of black sludge lodged inside the chamber.
  • Iron and sulfur were in ample supply in the damp area where the fragments were found. In such conditions, they can combine to accelerate deterioration.
  • More than 400 cyclones have hit the North Carolina coast since official hurricane records started in 1851 and it is safe to say that more than 500 significant storms have affected the area where the Queen Anne's Revenge sank in 1718.
Melissa Tedone (left) and Jocelyn Alcantara-Garcia with a cutout of Blackbeard the pirate.
Melissa Tedone (left) and Jocelyn Alcántara-Garcia with a cutout of Blackbeard the pirate.

That paper survived any of that -- well, let chemist Jocelyn Alcántara-Garcia size it up for you. Alcántara-Garcia is an assistant professor at UD and on the staff of Winterthur Museum's Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory.

"It's amazing," she said. "As a scientist, that's my professional opinion -- it's amazing."

Sixteen tiny paper fragments were retrieved by experts who have been analyzing the shipwreck site and its artifacts as part of the Queen Anne's Revenge Project run by North Carolina's Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The shipwreck was first discovered in 1996 by the private firm Intersal Inc.

A tiny fragment of paper from a book traced to 1712.

It may be the first paper -- ever -- discovered after three centuries under the sea.

"If it's not the first, it's certainly in a very tiny minority," said Melissa Tedone, book and library conservator at Winterthur and an affiliated assistant professor at UD.

Tedone and Alcántara-Garcia can't explain how the fragments survived, but several theories have been proposed.

"It's possible the paper fragments weren't actually exposed to water while underwater in the shipwreck," Tedone said. "They may have been caught in a pocket of air."

Or they may have been in a spot where there was no oxygen.

"It could be the 'magic' of not having oxygen," Alcántara-Garcia said. "Oxygen does nasty things. But I don't think there is a way to know. Right now, my guess is that somehow as the ship was sinking these tiny pockets didn't get water and didn't get much air."

Whatever it was, "it was just jaw-dropping," she said.

Tedone also is astonished that Erik Farrell, conservator in the QAR Lab, recognized the fragments as bits of paper, mixed as they were in mucky sludge, heavy with gunpowder, water and other sediments.

"He noticed some fibers and said we better save this handful of muck," she said. "And then -- on top of that -- it's crazy enough that there were paper fragments, but on some the printing was still intact."

Even more astonishing, the words were unique enough for researchers -- after months of effort -- to trace the fragments to the book from which they were torn, a first-edition 1712 volume of Captain Edward Cooke's “A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711.”

Books were a valuable commodity in that time period, so if Blackbeard or his fellow pirates tore a page, it might have been a sign of desperation.

The "tiny pirate papers" -- as Tedone and others call them -- came to Winterthur and UD by way of Tedone's longtime friend and former grad school classmate, Emily Rainwater, now a conservator for the State Archives of North Carolina. Rainwater knew of Winterthur/UD's reputation and analytical capabilities and contacted Tedone about the find.

"The QAR Conservation Lab does not have a paper conservator on staff," Tedone said. "Who would expect to find paper on a 300-year-old shipwreck? As you can imagine, this is outside the scope of any paper conservator's experience."

Would Tedone be interested in consulting on the project?

Blackbeard? Shipwreck? 18th-century papers? Oh -- why not?

"And it just so happens that Jocelyn -- our scientist who is a specialist in paper and fibers -- is also into scuba diving and obsessed with shipwrecks," Tedone said.

Ideal for this project, in other words.

Tedone and Alcántara-Garcia traveled to North Carolina to meet with the QAR team there and discuss the best ways to study and conserve them.

"The most exciting thing to me is that there was a group of people in this room, highly trained, highly specialized, highly passionate about these things -- all staring with a big question mark on our faces at a bunch of fluffy paper fragments," Alcántara-Garcia said.

Several fragments were brought to Winterthur for analysis.

Alcántara-Garcia used X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy to map the elements present in the fragments and the concentrations of those elements.

"I think all of us so-called experts are in this field because there is always more to discover and more to learn. The lifelong learning of this profession is what draws us all in."

- Melissa Tedone Book and library conservator and affiliated assistant professor at Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

"With shipwrecks, one of the greatest concerns is pyrite disease, associated with iron-based materials," she said. "If there is sulfur or sulfur-containing material and iron-containing materials, it will self-feed on the iron. Instead of having a cannon, you end up with a pyrite. It looks like a cannon, but it is no longer a cannon. Knowing that, and seeing a few specks on a couple of the fragments, there was a big concern of this disease being present in the fragments."

The disease was not present, Alcantara-Garcia said.

Tedone also consulted with Joan Irving, a paper conservator at Winterthur. They teased out a single fiber and, using a polarizing light microscope, determined it was a bast fiber -- linen -- and further saw that it had a cut appearance, indicating use of a Hollander beater in the paper-making process. That instrument was used in paper-making after 1673, Tedone said.

With the information provided in the Winterthur/UD analysis, Rainwater will determine the best treatment for the fragments.

"As a book conservator, to get to see and handle and consult on these fragments from a shipwreck -- it was an incredible experience," Tedone said. "I think all of us so-called experts are in this field because there is always more to discover and more to learn. The lifelong learning of this profession is what draws us all in."

Jocelyn Alcántara-Garcia, an assistant professor at UD and on the staff of Winterthur Museum's Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory, does analysis of fibers in the paper.

It is unclear how Blackbeard or any of his shipmates may have come into possession of this book, whether pirate ships often featured a library and whether many of those aboard were even literate.

But such volumes could have been prized bits of booty captured in one of their many raids, Tedone said.

"Books were a valuable commodity in that time period," Tedone said. "It's not like now, where anybody can run out to a second-hand store or buy a cheap paperback. To have a book on the ship -- it was probably something they plundered and it was valuable or it was purchased at a high price."

To have torn pages from such a prize may hint at the desperate situation Blackbeard and his mates found themselves in, she said. But she leaves such theories for other researchers to explore.

The infamous pirate survived the grounding of the Queen Anne's Revenge in 1718 and is said to have marooned some of his men to keep more of its treasures for himself in his escape aboard a rescue sloop.

But later that same year, he was captured and killed by British troops, who -- some accounts say -- hung his head from the front of their ship as a trophy for all to see as they returned to their Virginia base. There, the governor reportedly ordered Blackbeard's severed head to be placed on a pole at the mouth of the Hampton River, a grim warning to other marauders that a similar fate awaited them.

But that's another book.

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