For the thousands of years humankind has set out upon the sea, it’s been the ultimate fear for mariners — sinking. And in that time, countless ships have gone down, and endless untold lives have been lost.
Yet, as archaeological landmarks, shipwrecks offer a unique opportunity. Unlike land-based sites — often difficult to date and rarely undisturbed — shipwrecks provide a rare glimpse into the exact moment when tragedy struck.
The most famous shipwreck of all-time, the Titanic, is famous not just for the story of its sinking (and the 1997 movie), but also for the discovery of its wreckage over two miles deep in 1985.
But the story of the Titanic is just one among the countless throughout history. Let’s explore a few of the others.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge
Queen Anne’s Revenge was the flagship of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. While Teach’s early life and history remain shrouded in mystery (scholars still debate whether the surname ‘Teach’ was an alias), his flagship’s origin is better known. In 1717, Blackbeard’s crew captured a 200-ton French vessel named La Concorde in the French West Indies. The pirates quickly sold the ship’s cargo (African slaves), used some of the profit to outfit the vessel for further piracy, and then renamed their new prize Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Over the next year, Blackbeard and his crew would sail Queen Anne’s Revenge throughout the target-rich Eastern Atlantic — flying a black flag with a skull to intimidate merchant ships into turning over their cargo without a fight. However, in June 1718, Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground off North Carolina. Blackbeard abandoned the ship, which later sank. Blackbeard didn’t survive much longer than his flagship; he was killed in November 1718 in a battle with British and Colonial sailors near Ocracoke Island.
In 1996, the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge was discovered about a mile from Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been recovered, including 31 cannons, coins, ammunition, swords, even the 3,100 lb anchor. In 2004, the wreck site was included in the United States’ National Register of Historic Places.
Launched in June 1906, and making her first trans-Atlantic voyage in September 1907, RMS Lusitania was a British Ocean liner. In service for the Cunard Line, she competed with the White Star Line’s Adriatic and their Olympic-class liners (including the Titanic). In the years before World War I, she was one of the fastest ocean liners in the world and made over 200 crossings before she was sunk.
The Lusitania could cruise at over 25 knots (29 mph). Her speed pleased not only her passengers and the Cunard Line’s management, but also the British Admiralty. That’s because back in 1903, the British government had provided funding to build her — and a subsidy to Cunard Line —and, in exchange, she would adhere to specifications furnished by the British Admiralty. One of these specifications was that she could travel at a speed of 24 knots at least. The Admiralty had envisioned converting the Lusitania into a troop transport — a plan which never came to fruition due to her sinking early in the war.
When war broke out in 1914, passenger traffic between Europe and America decreased. The Germans, eager to cut off the supply of war materials to Britain and her allies, instituted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in and around the British Isles.
In May of 1915, off the coast of Ireland, a German submarine fired a single torpedo at the Lusitania. The liner was struck on her starboard side. Within minutes of impact, a second, larger explosion tore through the ship. It took only eighteen minutes from the time of the torpedo impact for the Lusitania to disappear into the sea. In total, 1,198 passengers and crew perished as a result of the sinking.
The attack nearly drew the then-neutral United States into World War I, because, among the victims, 128 were Americans.
The wreck of the Lusitania rests 300 feet underwater, 11 miles south of Kinsale, Ireland. Located in 1935, the ship’s remains are in poor condition (owing to the water’s relatively shallow depth, the strong tidal forces in the area, and numerous depth charges and mines that exploded at the site during World War II). Still, multiple salvage attempts have been made since its discovery. Notable artifacts discovered include several of the Lusitania’s propellers (which were removed and brought to the surface), a telegraph machine, and over 15,000 rounds of .303 rifle ammunition.
The Antikythera Shipwreck
In 1900, a group of sponge divers stumbled across an ancient shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. Over the next year, dozens of ancient artifacts were recovered from the wreckage. Marble and bronze statues, sounding weights (ancient marine navigational instruments used to determine the depth of water), and a bronze lyre were all brought to the surface. It was quickly determined that the shipwreck dated from the 1st or 2nd century B.C.
Among the priceless artifacts recovered from the shipwreck is the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism. This object — believed by many scholars to be the world’s first analog computer — was discovered in 1902 and continues to fascinate people even today. Reconstructions of the device and its complex geared mechanism indicate that it was most likely a complex astronomical calendar: it was probably able to calculate the movement of the five planets known to the Greeks, along with predicting Lunar and Solar eclipses.
In 1976, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his team surveyed the Antikythera shipwreck. The team retrieved many additional artifacts, including jewelry, ceramics, and coins, which helped establish the ship’s most likely sinking date sometime between 80–70 B.C.
Although the exact details of the Antikythera ship will likely never be known — who was aboard, what they were doing, where they were going — the ship remains an archaeological gold mine. Most of the artifacts, including the Antikythera Mechanism, are on display at the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
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