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College of Arts & Sciences
Maritime Research Division

The South Carolina BOEM Cooperative Agreement: Geophysical Mapping and Identification of Paleolandscapes and Historic Shipwrecks Offshore South Carolina, Year One

By Daniel Mark Brown and James D. Spirek

    Created in 2010, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is responsible for managing all offshore energy. With the development of interest in Renewable Energy, specific to archaeology, BOEM requires surveys and reports to identify the two types of cultural resources most likely encountered on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). These are historic sites and drowned sites representing prehistoric occupation or exploitation dating from at least 13,500 years ago when sea-levels were lower than at present by about 100 meters. In November 2014, BOEM’s Office of Renewable Energy Program (OREP) signed a Cooperative Agreement with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium to explore potential Wind Energy Areas (WEA) offshore South Carolina’s portion of the OCS (Figure 1). The result of this agreement is the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Development Project: Geophysical Mapping and Identification of Paleolandscapes and Historic Shipwrecks Offshore South Carolina. This is a joint project with several South Carolina state agencies and universities; SCIAA is a principal member of the project, responsible for aiding in remote sensing operations, ground truthing targets through dive operations, delivering analysis of cultural resources, and writing the archaeological report. 

Figure 1. Survey blocks offshore South Carolina from North Mrytle Beach to Georgetown (BOEM).

 The South Carolina portion of the OCS has the potential to yield a wealth of archaeological information about the early peopling of North America and the historic seafaring traditions of exploration, trade, and warfare since the discovery of the New World in 1492 AD. From 13,500 to 3,000 YBP, the OCS was open for human habitation and exploitation of natural and geological resources (Figure 2, top of article)

 Remote sensing and underwater survey off South Carolina has revealed potential for evidence of habitation, including an 11,000-year-old drowned cypress forest located 19 miles off Georgetown, and a Paleolithic stone blade (Figure 3). Recent re-nourishment of Folly Beach in Charleston resulted in finds of this prehistoric stone artifact by local residents, and reportedly other points as well.;  tThe sands were dredged from a borrow several eight kilometers (5 miles) offshore, the borrow site apparently including included an Early Archaic artifactssite dating more than 10,000 years old. 

Important historical archeological resources lying on the SC-OCS also include shipwrecks and historic artifacts. From the earliest European explorations to World War II, the Atlantic Ocean contains shipwrecks associated with these endeavors, along with isolated objects of historical significance. Within the six Survey Blocks are 40 known targets. Historical research revealed a list of 27 historic shipwreck events that occurred between 1745 and 1863 in the broader vicinity of the research area. Some of the known historic wrecks are clustered with modern wrecks, purposefully sunk vessels, and other objects compiling 35 artificial reefs in the Survey Blocks. As part of the marine habitat, it is as significant to protect those cultural resources which are also natural resources.

Figure 3. Early Archaic stone point found at Folly Beach, South Carolina.

Utilizing databases and historical sources, five known historic wrecks fall within the Survey Blocks (with a sixth just north of N1). They are North Carolina, wrecked 1840; Sherman, wrecked 1874; William Richard, wrecked 1884; Hector, lost 1916; and Torungen, listed as lost 1943. The most famous was Sherman, originally a Scottish packet steamer, Princess Royal; a Charleston blockade running firm purchased the vessel in 1862. In a relatively short career as a blockade runner the vessel was captured in January 1863 (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. A sketch of the captured Princess Royal.

The vessel was taken to Philadelphia, purchased by the US Navy and refit as USS Princess Royal and assigned to the Western Blockade in the Gulf of Mexico (Wise 1988:317). After the war, the navy decommissioned the vessel and sold it for civilian use; it finished its career as a packet steamer between Baltimore and New Orleans. A survey in 1873 lists the vessel at 196 feet long, breadth 27 feet, draft 16 feet, and a gross tonnage of 973 tons. Sherman wrecked January 1874 just off Little River Inlet, South Carolina. Divers discovered the vessel in the late 1970s and the wreck remains a popular location for divers. There is another wreck south of Block S1 identified as General Sherman, at one point thought to be the Princess Royal, but its location off Georgetown and the erroneous addition of General suggest it is another unknown steamer. 

Completion of Phase 1 is pending early 2016 with Phase 2 refinement and Phase 3 ground truthing anticipated this spring and summer. MRD is responsible for coordinating ground truthing with CCU crew and dive safety officer along with BOEM marine archaeologists. With the increased interest and research into submerged prehistoric archaeological sites, the archaeological potential of cultural resources in South Carolina’s OCS has increased exponentially of one measured in centuries to the time of European contact to one stretching back millennia to the peopling of North America sometime before 13,500 YBP. Contributing to BOEM’s ongoing responsibility to protect submerged cultural resources in federal waters, this project adds to the growing list of studies undertaken with the aim of reconstructing both the more recent past and unraveling the mystery of when and how the first people set foot in South Carolina, even if that footprint is now underwater.