National Geographic reports on a pretty clever piece of historical detective work.
A handful of paper scraps recovered from the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge have been identified as fragments of the 1712 book A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Performâ€™d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711, by Captain Edward Cooke.
The discovery was announced Thursday during a presentation by conservators from the Queen Anneâ€™s Revenge (QAR) Conservation Lab at the annual meeting of the Society of Historical Archaeology held in New Orleans.
Queen Anne’s Revenge went aground outside of what is now Beaufort, North Carolina, in 1718, and Blackbeard was killed while battling British naval forces in the Pamlico Sound a few months later. The wreck of the pirate’s flagship was found by private salvagers in 1996 and excavation by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources began a year later.
The fragments were embedded in a wet mass of textile scraps removed from a breech-loading cannon chamber during its cleaning and conservation in 2016, according to QAR Lab conservator Erik Farrell. The wad, blackened with gunpowder residue, may have served as a gasket for the wooden tampion, a plug that protected the cannon muzzle from the elements.
Sixteen paper fragments, none larger than a U.S. quarter, were eventually identified, and seven of the fragments had legible text. As conservators gently pried the fragments of paper apart, they noticed that the text on successive layers was running in the same direction, leading them to suspect that they had the remains of several pages from the same book.
Eventually, they could make out words including “south” and fathom,” which suggested the fragments may have come from some sort of maritime or navigational text. But there was a particular word that led to the book’s ultimate identification, says QAR Lab conservator Kimberly Kenyon.
“There was one really key word that stood out: ‘Hilo.’ It was very distinctive and italicized, which might indicate a place name,” Kenyon tells National Geographic.
“It really was luck.”