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Archaeologists researching a site where Caribbean pirates "laid their hats" have found the drunken men not only smoked like the devil but also preferred fine pottery. They were sort of the real "Pirates of the Caribbean."
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updated 9/2/2011 12:44:39 PM ET 2011-09-02T16:44:39

They smoked like the devil, drank straight from the bottle, annoyed the Spanish and had a fascination with fine pottery.

Oh, and they didn't use plates ... at least not ceramic ones.

Based in 18th-century Belize, they were real " Pirates of the Caribbean " and now new research by 21st-century archaeologists is telling us what their lives were like.

Their findings, detailed in a chapter in a recently published book, suggest that while these pipe-smoking men acted as stereotypical pirates would — drinking, smoking and stealing — they also kept fancy, impractical porcelain in their camps. The fine dinnerware may have been a way to imbue the appearance of upper-class society.

Caribbean pirates
From historical records scientists had known that by 1720 these Caribbean pirates occupied a settlement called the "Barcadares," a name derived from the Spanish word for "landing place." Located 15 miles up the Belize River, in territory controlled by the Spanish, the site was used as an illegal logwood-cutting operation. The records indicate that a good portion of its occupants were pirates taking a pause from life at sea.

Their living conditions were rustic to say the least. There were no houses, and the men slept on raised platforms with a canvas over them to keep the mosquitoes out. They hunted and gathered a good deal of their food.

Capt. Nathaniel Uring, a merchant seaman who was shipwrecked and spent more than four months with the inhabitants, described them in the book The Voyages and Travels of Captain Nathaniel Uring (reprinted in 1928 by Cassell and Co.) as a "rude drunken crew, some which have been pirates, and most of them sailors."

Their "chief delight is in drinking; and when they broach a quarter cask or a hogshead of Bottle Ale or Cyder, keeping at it sometimes a week together, drinking till they fall asleep; and as soon as they awake at it again, without stirring off the place." Eventually, Uring returned to Jamaica and, in 1726, published an account of his adventures.

Pirate research
Over the past two decades, a steady stream of archaeological research has increasingly shed light on the people who lived at the Barcadares.

In the 1990s archaeologist Daniel Finamore, now a curator with the Peabody Essex Museum, led a team that rediscovered the Barcadares site. Its precise location had been lost since it was abandoned in the mid-18th century and the team found it with the help of a map drawn by Uring. They excavated it, uncovering decorated pottery fragments known as delftware along with a small amount of authentic Chinese porcelain. They also found tobacco pipes, nails and ceramic bowls, among other items.

Courtesy Daniel Finamore
The scientists found bits of Chinese porcelain (shown at front), with a reconstruction of what they would've looked like if intact.

More recently, Heather Hatch, an archaeologist who is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, performed an analysis comparing the artifacts found at the Barcadares site with that of two British colonial sites, sans pirates, on the island of Nevis.

"The Barcadares is the only clearly pirate-associated site from this period excavated to date," Hatch wrote in her report, recently published as a chapter in the book "The Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes" (Springer Science and Business Media, 2011).

"There are few pirate sites to examine, period. The few pirate shipwrecks that have been excavated are embroiled in debates over ethics and identification," she wrote.

Smoke like the devil
The differences between the Barcadares and the two non-pirate sites, also occupied during the 18th century, on Nevis are striking.

Courtesy Daniel Finamore
About 36 percent of all the artifacts at the Barcadares are made up of tobacco pipes (shown here), indicating that the pirates were heavy smokers.

Both British sites were excavated by Marco Meniketti, who is now a professor at San Jose State University. The Ridge Complex site consisted of a sugar mill and related dwellings, while the Port St. George site, on the southern coast of the island, was used to process and transport sugar.

One stark difference between the sites was the sheer amount of tobacco use at the Barcadares. Pipes make up 36 percent of the artifacts found at the pirate site, compared with 22 percent at the Ridge Complex and 16 percent at Port St. George. Hatch told LiveScience that she is not aware of another site from this period with such a high proportion of tobacco pipes. "Percentage-wise, it's the highest that I know of."

The pirates, while at sea, would've had a lot of time on their hands, time they likely spent smoking heavily, Hatch said.

"They're not going to be sword fighting all the time," she said. "There's a lot of down time when you're a pirate, when you're sitting around in your ship, when you're waiting for prey, waiting for someone to attack or when you're sailing from point A to point B."

She also pointed out that "pirate activity wasn't regulated on a ship the same way it was on a merchant ship or navy," and that pirate crews were larger and "generally speaking that there was less work for everyone to do."

Peabody curator Finamore added that the mostly male makeup of the pirate site could explain the high level of tobacco pipes found, "where there are more males there is more smoking going on."

Fine pottery
In addition to finding smokes, Hatch's analysis revealed differences in ceramics found. The pottery on the two Nevis sites is made from diverse materials, including various types of tough, practical stoneware.

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However, more than 65 percent of the pirate ceramics is made up of delftware — a soft, decorative material that was finished with a glaze. It is less sturdy than stoneware and not terribly practical for people living in a remote location.

"It's sort of soft pottery that has a glaze on it that can be quite pale," Hatch said. The pirate site also has a small amount of Chinese porcelain that was transported half way across the world.

Why the pirates would keep such impractical things in their camp is a mystery. Finamore pointed out that there were no legitimate trade routes in fine pottery that would have reached Belize at the time the pirates were living there.

"It seems most likely to me that they would have been part of booty," he said. The pirates likely either captured it themselves or traded with someone who did.

Finamore believes that the porcelain and delftware would have been prized possessions for the pirates. "They're sort of copying the appearances of upper class societies such as how the captains would live."

Hatch agrees. "I do think it was a matter of wanting to display that they could have these nice things," she said. It would have made a point that, even out in Belize, they had "access even to these sorts of fancy pottery types that you might find in the bigger cities in the colonial world."

Real pirates use bowls
While the pirates liked glittering pottery, they liked it mainly in two forms – bowls or porringers. The people who lived at the two Nevis sites, on the other hand, had a mix of plates, storage jars, saucers, tankards and mugs, among other objects.

It’s possible that some of the tableware was made of wood, and has since decomposed.  Another possibility, the researchers suggest, is that the pirates simply didn’t feel a need for it.

"You can use a bowl for anything you can use a plate for pretty much. But you can't use a plate to eat, for example, cold soup," Hatch said.

Finamore believes that "the bowl form is more reflective of a communal eating activity." Unlike the people of Nevis, the pirates would have eaten more informally. "I somehow doubt that the Barcadares set tables; they probably ate communally out of the same bowls."

As for why no cups were found at the Barcadares site, Finamore and Hatch suggest that the pirates could have drank from wooden containers.

However, the explanation could be even simpler.

"I don't think they would have any qualms whatsoever about drinking straight from the bottle," Hatch said.

Finamore recalled that after he had found the Barcadares site, he shared the location with Emory King, a well-known Belize historian who has since died.

King told him that in the 1960s the bend in the river where the site is located was known as a great place for bottle diving. "People had gone out there, dived into the river, and pulled out very old bottles," Finamore said.

These bottles would not have been thrown away after a one-time use. "The nearest bottle manufactory, from the Barcadares site, was a long, long way away."

But despite the value of the bottles, and perhaps while under the influence of alcohol, the pirates would sometimes chuck them into the river.

"Some of them sometimes found their way into the river," Finamore said.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Eight ancient drinks uncorked by science

  • Image:
    Institute for Exploration & Wood

    Throughout human history, alcoholic beverages have treated pain, thwarted infections and unleashed a cascade of pleasure in the brain that lubricates the social fabric of life, according to Patrick McGovern, an archaeochemist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

    For the past several decades, McGovern's research has focused on finding archaeological and chemical evidence for fermented beverages in the ancient world. The details are chronicled in his recently published book, “Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages.”

    He argues that the mind-altering effects of alcohol and the mysterious process of fermentation may explain why these drinks dominated entire economies, religions and societies. He’s found evidence of fermented beverages everywhere he's looked, which fits his hypothesis that alcohol "had a lot to do with making us what we are in biological and cultural terms."

    The author, shown here examining an ancient pottery sherd, spoke with msnbc.com about his research. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about 8 ancient drinks uncorked by science.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • China: First known brew

    Image:
    Dogfish Head Brewery

    While the human relationship with alcohol may trace back to our ancestors, the earliest chemical evidence for an alcoholic beverage dates back 9,000 years to the ancient village of Jiahu in China's Henan province.

    Based on the analysis of residues extracted from pottery fragments, McGovern and colleagues concluded that the people were drinking a mixed wine-and-beer-like beverage made with grapes, hawthorn fruit, rice and honey. The finding was published in December 2004. The following year, McGovern collaborated with Sam Calagione and his crew at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware to re-create the millennia-old drink. Their creation, called Chateau Jiahu, won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009.

    "We worked hard on getting this interpretation right. Since it does represent the oldest alcoholic beverage, it was really gratifying to get that gold tasting award," McGovern said.

  • Iran: Earliest evidence for barley beer

    Image: ancient vessel
    University of Pennsylvania

    Which came first: bread or beer? The question remains unresolved, but evidence suggests barley was first cultivated about 10,000 years ago — the same time humans were abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and sowing the seeds of civilization. What was the catalyst for the transition? A steady supply of barley bread is one possibility. Brewing copious amounts of barley beer is another.

    "From a pragmatic standpoint, the question is really a-no brainer," McGovern writes in his book. "If you had to choose today, which would it be? Neolithic people had all the same neural pathways and sensory organs as we have, so their choice would probably not have been much different."

    Some of the earliest chemical evidence for beer comes from residues – calcium oxalate, known as beerstone – inside a jar excavated at the Godin Tepe archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran that is dated to between 3400 and 3100 B.C.

  • Turkey: Mixed drink for Midas?

    Image:
    Gordion Project, University of P

    In 1957, University of Pennsylvania Museum researchers working at the Gordion archaeological site near Ankara, Turkey, broke through the wall of an elaborate tomb dated to between 740 and 700 B.C. that research suggests was the burial site of the fabled King Midas, or his father and king, Gordius.  Among the remains in the tomb were the body of a 60- to 65-year-old male and the largest Iron Age drinking set ever found: 157 bronze vessels that were presumably used during the occupant's farewell feast.

    In the late 1990s, McGovern and his colleagues analyzed residues inside the vessels and found evidence for a mixed beverage of grape wine, barley beer and honey mead. In March of 2000, he challenged microbrewers to make a representative concoction — and in the process prove or disprove that such grog was a plausible, enjoyable drink. Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head brewery came through with what has become his most celebrated beverage: "Midas Touch."

  • Phoenicia: Active in the wine trade

    Image:
    Institute for Exploration & Wood

    Analysis of a pottery jar, or amphora, pulled up from a late 8th century B.C. shipwreck in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel offers a strong hint that the wine trade flourished as a result of Phoenician enterprise originating from the coast of Lebanon and Syria, according to McGovern.

    He and his colleagues discovered that the amphora was filled with a tree-resin-infused wine. What's more, the bottle had been sealed with resin to prevent the liquid from leaking out and oxygen getting in and spoiling the wine. Other Phoenician shipwrecks found throughout the Mediterranean dating to between 1000 B.C. and 400 B.C. also contained vast stores of wine.

    "Some of the people working on that area say that the wine trade was really what transferred culture from the eastern Mediterranean to the western Mediterranean, because all of these ships are just chock-full of wine-related artifacts," McGovern said.

  • Chile: New World's first fermented drink

    Tom Dillehay / Vanderbilt

    The earliest evidence for human occupation in the New World is found at Mount Verde, Chile, an inland archaeological site that dates to about 13,000 years before present. The discovery of the site in 1977 raised the possibility that the first migrants across the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska took a water route to get to South America, not a slower-going overland trek as previously thought.

    For McGovern, another intriguing possibility at Monte Verde is telling hints that these early Americans were drinking a fermented beverage. Though a drinking vessel or jug for chemical analysis has yet to be found, botanical debris at the site includes several fruits and starchy foods that could have been made into a buzz-giving drink.

    "Humans are very innovative when it comes to figuring out how to make a fermented beverage, so if you've got fruits or other starchy materials that could be chewed or made into a sweet food or beverage, they'd discover how to do it. ... We just don't have the hard evidence for it yet," McGovern said.

  • Honduras: Wine and chocolate

    Image: ancient pottery
    PNAS

    Chocolate, almost anyone will attest, is tasty stuff. But long before humans were turning cacao beans into delicious deserts, they were making a wine from the sweet pulp that fills the cacao pods. "The initial motivation for focusing in on the chocolate tree and domesticating it would have been this fermented beverage," McGovern said.

    The earliest evidence for this cacao-based wine comes from chemical analysis of pottery fragments recovered at the Puerto Escondido site in Honduras dating to as early as 1400 B.C. Nearly all the fragments tested had the fingerprint compound for cacao, theobromine. And these vessels clearly were intended to hold a liquid or a beverage, McGovern said.

    Cacao-based fermented drinks were popular throughout Mesoamerica, evolving into a mixed beverage during Aztec and Mayan times that may have even included the addition of mind-altering substances such as peyote or hallucinogenic mushrooms. Honey, chilis, scented flowers and spices were the usual additives.

    McGovern's research once again led to collaboration with Calagione at Dogfish Head to re-create a representative concoction of this centuries-old tradition. The creation, called Theobroma, is brewed with cocoa powder and nibs from the Aztec region of Soconusco, honey, chilis and fragrant tree seeds called annatto — though it lacks the illicit kick.

  • Peru: Burning down the house

    Image: Burned cup
    Patrick Ryan Williams  /  Field Museum

    For some reason or other, a pre-Incan civilization known as the Wari abandoned their outpost atop Cerro Baul, a mountain about 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean in southern Peru. Before they departed, archaeological evidence indicates that they had a grand bash replete with ceremonial smashing of mugs full of alcoholic beverage and then literally burned down the house.

    The drink of choice for the Wari was made from the fruit of the pepper tree Schinus molle. The largest known production facility for making the beverage was found at Cerro Baul. In addition to vats for making the beverage and thousands of pepper-tree seeds and stems, archaeologists found shawl pins worn by women, an indication that they were responsible for making the beverage.

  • Egypt: Beer helped build the pyramids

    LSST

    For many a manual laborer, even today, few things are as rewarding after a long day's work than a mug of beer. The ancient Egyptians knew this. The workers who built the Great Pyramids, for example, were paid in a daily allotment of bread and beer, noted McGovern. Just how deep in time the Egyptian beer-making tradition goes is uncertain, but pottery remains from Hierakonpolis, in Upper Egypt, suggest that the craft was under way perhaps as early as 3500 B.C.

    Chemical analyses suggest that barley was mashed and beer was made at the site and other sites nearby. If so, they would be the earliest breweries in the world. "They seem to be making beer on a very large scale," McGovern said. "It was probably involved in large-scale architectural projects in which the workers, just like at the pyramids, were paid in bread and beer."

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