Authorities are resorting to a risky new method aimed at helping preserve what is believed to be the sunken flagship of the pirate Blackbeard.
The Army Corps of Engineers is creating an underwater sand dune to shelter the Queen Anne's Revenge, which sits about 26 feet (8 meters) underwater off the North Carolina coast.
The untried method could potentially damage the ship, which sank in 1718. But if it works, experts said it could be a model for protecting other underwater archaeological finds.
"We don't really know what it's going to do," said Bill Adams, a biologist with the Corps.
The idea of burying the wreck in sand was suggested in the state's plan for managing the site after it was discovered in 1996.
Project archaeologist Chris Southerly said the burial was made possible because the corps was dredging near the site and had a ready supply of sand. Dredging began Wednesday.
A fresh covering?
The dumped sand will create a slope on the ocean floor that's about 600 feet (180 meters) long, 200 feet (60 meters) wide and 6 feet (2 meters) tall. Experts hope ocean currents will carry sand toward the ship, replenishing the protective covering it once had.
Archaeologists have been retrieving artifacts from the wreck for years and haven't stopped diving on the site. But exposure of cannons, anchors, and other artifacts is now at a "critical point," Southerly said.
Organic material like wood is especially at risk of rapid deterioration with the loss of the preserving cover of sand, he said.
Legend vs. reality
Blackbeard, whose real name was widely believed to be Edward Teach or Thatch, was tracked down at Ocracoke Inlet by volunteers from the Royal Navy and killed in a battle on Nov. 22, 1718.
Some scientists, including a pair of professors who published an article last year, have questioned whether the wreck is the Queen Anne's Revenge. They suggest the vessel is more likely a mid-18th-century merchant ship than a pirate's boat.
But Southerly, who's been studying the Queen Anne's Revenge since 2000, said research supports his view that the ship, discovered in 1996, belonged to Blackbeard.
"The Queen Anne's Revenge is the only candidate that fits, that is documented in Beaufort Inlet," he said.