Archeology: Methods, Artifacts, and Interpretation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge

Joseph Nicholls, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Blackbeard’s Cannon, Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Recovery | Beaufort, NC” by Zach Frailey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In the 200-some years since the Queen Anne’s Revenge was grounded off the coast of North Carolina, the famed pirate ship has been subject to centuries of wear, weathering, and salt water. Interpreting what is left is now the work of dedicated teams of archeologists, conservators, and historians who follow the artifacts from ocean retrieval to laboratory preservation.

Following the discovery and identification of the wreck in 1996, artifact recovery efforts remained sporadic until the early 2000s, when a dedicated conservation lab was established.1 Since then, more than 400,000 artifacts have been recovered, ranging from massive cannons weighing up to a ton each to miniscule fragments of glass, wood, and metal.2

Site Layout

Because the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground instead of breaking apart at sea, the wreck is more intact and shows narrower artifact dispersal patterns than storm-wrecked vessels. Although scour and reburial due to storms and changing currents have shifted the wreck over time, the artifacts within it are found across a relatively condensed area and general regions of the ship remain somewhat distinct.3

The current focus of excavation is a large mass of concreted objects in the midships region, dubbed the “pile”, which is the most methodologically challenging portion of the wreck, requiring archaeologists to work especially carefully to avoid damaging the already-fragile artifacts contained within.4

Concretion: a hardened mass of corrosion, minerals, and marine growth formed after years of exposure to salt water, commonly observed in underwater archeology.5


Working on one five-foot by five-foot square at a time, divers use pneumatic chisels to painstakingly free objects from the concretion while clearing sediment with a water induction dredge.6 The dredge, which looks something like a long vacuum tube, is connected to sluices onboard the archaeologists’ vessel that sift out small artifacts that could have been missed.7 Work proceeds slowly to avoid damaging to the wreck any further.

Once artifacts are retrieved from the wreck, they’re taken to the QAR Conservation Laboratory to be examined, logged, and identified. Because most artifacts are heavily concreted after their long exposure to seawater, physical examination is often insufficient and more sophisticated techniques, like x-radiography, are necessary to reveal the structure of individual artifacts.8

A concreted cannon retrieved from the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
“Cannons from pirate ship recovered in Beaufort Inlet, N.C.” by Coast Guard News is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Due to the ship’s complicated history as a slave ship turned pirate vessel, the artifacts retrieved from the Queen Anne’s Revenge are representative of several facets of maritime activity in the early eighteenth century. As Kimberly Kenyon, head conservator of the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project, explained in an interview with the American Institute for Conservation, artifacts from the site “represent material culture relevant to piracy as well as to the transatlantic slave trade and serve as evidence of that sudden shift in function during their use life.”9 In other words, the artifacts of the Queen Anne’s Revenge are relevant not only to the Golden Age of Piracy, but to a broader examination of material culture in Atlantic history.

Some particularly interesting artifacts are highlighted below.

Restraining Device

Restraints, such as the rope-bound shackles recovered from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, are common aboard pirate ships to deal with rowdy behavior or drunkenness. However, the shackles may also be a remnant from the ship’s slave voyages prior to its capture by Blackbeard and therefore serve as a reminder of the vessel’s overlapping functions.10

Paper Fragments

Preserved fragments of paper were recovered from inside a gunpowder chamber, or breech block, and thorough research by the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project team identified them as pages from Edward Cooke’s 1712 book, “A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711”.11 This finding was significant for archeological purposes, since paper remains are rare at shipwreck sites, as well as historical purposes, as it provides information about what books could be found at sea and how they were used.12

Excerpt from “A Voyage to the South Sea”, retrieved from Internet Archive.
Title page of “A Voyage to the South Sea”, retrieved from Internet Archive.

Onion Bottles

Because the shape and size of glass wine bottles underwent several distinctive shifts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they’re often very useful in determining the age of an archeological site. The bulbous, onion-shaped bottles recovered from the wreck can be dated to around 1708-1714, which helps confirm the identity of the wreck.13


Not all of the objects found at the Queen Anne’s Revenge site are part of the original wreck. Called intrusive material, these objects can range from modern glass bottles to biological debris such as fish bones.14 In some cases, the intrusive material itself has an interesting story to tell – for example, pieces of coal found at the wreck have characteristics that only appear in coal mined in the late-eighteenth century and beyond and are thought to be a vestige of the Union Navy coal refueling station established in Beaufort during the Civil War.15


In addition to the larger artifacts, the process of running sediment from the excavation process through a sluice has yielded thousands of small “microartifacts”, the analysis of which has provided a wealth of information about the formation of the site and how artifacts have been worn and redistributed over time.16 Understanding the processes of site formation and the patterns of wear and weathering that the wreck underwent between grounding and the present day can give archeologists information that’s applicable to other, similar sites.17

A wide variety of materials have been found in the sediment, including metal, glass, bone, wood, and ceramic fragments, and the distribution of these microartifacts provides evidence in favor of the grounding hypothesis (the theory that the ship ran aground on a sandbar rather than breaking apart at sea) as well as the winnowing hypothesis (the theory that the site has undergone repeated scour and reburial events)18. Both large and small artifacts, particularly those made from heavy materials, are concentrated at the center of the site, consistent with a grounding event. Similarly, the distribution – and sometimes lack of – lighter artifacts implies that physical changes to the site have winnowed them out over time in a manner consistent with scour and reburial events.19

Looking Forward

The goal of complete excavation is unusual for a shipwreck. Most of the time, a combination of prohibitive costs, difficult conditions, and the hours of labor involved prevent such a comprehensive effort – however, in the case of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the significance of the site, the potential for looting, and the monetary support of the state of North Carolina provided archeologists with the incentive and opportunity to pursue such an ambitious objective20. Because of this lofty goal, the excavation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge is still far from complete – despite the massive amount of material already recovered by archeologists, just half of the wreck had been excavated as of 2018, with many artifacts still in the lab awaiting conservation and analysis21.

In the coming years, continued research by archaeologists is sure to further our understanding of the social and political factors surrounding the Queen Anne’s Revenge and its place in eighteenth-century maritime history, from slave ship to pirate vessel.

“Cannons from pirate ship recovered in Beaufort Inlet, N.C.” by Coast Guard News is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
“Cannons from pirate ship recovered in Beaufort Inlet, N.C.” by Coast Guard News is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


  1. Morris, “Site History”, 226.
  2. Price, “A Preliminary Report”, 160.
  3. Price, “A Preliminary Report”, 165
  4. Morris, “Site History”, 226
  5. Queen Anne’s Revenge Project, “Conservation Lab”.
  6. Morris, “Site History”, 229.
  7. Patel and Blackburn, “Blackbeard Surfaces”, 26.
  8. Queen Anne’s Revenge Project, “Conservation Lab”.
  9. Grant, “Interview”.
  10. Queen Anne’s Revenge Project, “Restraining Device”.
  11. Farrell et al., “Breech Block”, 239.
  12. Grant, “Interview”.
  13. Kenyon, “Onion Bottles”.
  14. Price, “A Preliminary Report”, 160.
  15. Kenyon, “Coal”.
  16. Price, “A Preliminary Report”, 155.
  17. Price, “A Preliminary Report”, 155.
  18. Price, “A Preliminary Report”, 165.
  19. Price, “A Preliminary Report”, 156.
  20. Morris, “Site History”, 226.
  21. Morris, “Site History”, 229.