KURE BEACH, N.C. — There are hundreds of shipwrecks along North Carolina’s treacherous coast, and some, like those of the ironclad USS Monitor or the Blackbeard flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge, are nothing short of famous.
But that of the hapless Civil War blockade runner Modern Greece, which sits just beyond the surf near Fort Fisher, is in many ways the most important of all.
The wreck, which was excavated 50 years ago, led to the creation of the state underwater archaeology unit that studies the other wrecks. It led to a state law to protect historic wreck sites from pilfering. It yielded such a large trove of artifacts that many have been used in experiments that advanced the tricky science of how to preserve historical treasures found underwater.
As the first of about 30 blockade runners sunk along the coast near Wilmington while trying to bring arms and vital commodities to the Confederate states, it has an iconic status in North Carolina and maritime history.
And this week — just in time for events marking the 150th anniversary of its sinking — thousands of artifacts from the Modern Greece were recovered from underwater.
For the second time.
A team of East Carolina University graduate students and University of North Carolina, Wilmington interns sponsored by the Friends of Fort Fisher waded into the muck of half-century-old storage tanks at the Department of Cultural Resources’ Underwater Archaeology Branch facility on the grounds of the historic fort. Their job: pull out the artifacts, clean and catalog them and put them in indoor tanks where they could finally begin to receive modern preservation treatment.
“It was just the right time to do this,” said Mark Wilde-Ramsing, deputy state archaeologist and head of Underwater Archaeology Branch. “There are a lot of reasons, but the bottom line is it would be a bit irresponsible to just leave it there. We don’t even know what we have there.”
In June, the state plans a seminar on the Modern Greece and blockade runners. It also will throw open the labs at Fort Fisher so the public can see the artifacts and what it takes to preserve them.
New signs on the beach and roadside pointing out the wreck site are planned, and a researcher working with the state is seeking a federal grant to perform a full survey of the 30 blockade-runner wrecks off Wilmington, as well as facilities on land to put it all in proper context.
And the archaeologists are planning a modest spring expedition to use the latest gear to examine the Modern Greece site and create a proper record of it.
Broadly, all the activity is aimed at bringing more attention to the local blockade runners, Wilde-Ramsing said. They represent the largest collection of wrecks in the world dating from an unusually interesting period in naval architecture, and they have a central place in Civil War history.
Many are likely to be deteriorating quickly, but the state doesn’t have a full picture of their location and condition.
The creation of the state’s underwater archaeology and conservation lab — which state officials think may have been the nation’s first — began, in a sense, on June 27, 1862.
The Modern Greece, a 210-foot English ship loaded with hundreds of tons of rifles, gunpowder and other goods, was creeping along the coast, making for the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, when it was spotted in the murky light just before dawn by two Union blockade ships.
They gave chase, and the heavily-loaded ship ran aground, apparently while trying to get close enough to Fort Fisher for protection by the Confederate artillery there.
The passengers and crew escaped by lifeboat as both sides shelled the ship to keep the other from getting the valuable cargo.
According to historical accounts, some of the cargo was salvaged and brought ashore, though apparently part of a liquor shipment got no further than the Confederate soldiers on the beach.
Eventually, the sea claimed the rest.
Then, almost precisely 100 years later, in the spring of 1962, Navy divers stumbled on the wreck just off the beach while visiting the area essentially as tourists.
A violent storm had just cleared the thick bed of sand from the remains of the ship. The divers were startled to find much of the remaining cargo exposed, intact and all but begging to be pulled up.
State officials got wind of the find and asked the Navy to allow the divers to recover the cargo on behalf of the state.
By summer, 11 divers were working off a loaned Coast Guard barge anchored over the site. Eventually the divers retrieved 11,500 pieces of cargo and other artifacts from the ship.
The challenge was what to do with the artifacts after they were brought ashore.
The glitzy part of maritime archaeology is the discovery of wrecks or the lifting of flashy artifacts like cannons from the sea.
But there’s seldom enough money to cover the cost of storage tanks and buildings and the years of labor in cleaning away corrosion and accumulation of marine life. The years of care it can take to carefully leach the salt out of a cannon doesn’t make for the kind of exciting television coverage the cannon gets when it breaks the surface.
After the Modern Greece’s cargo was brought up, some was treated and eventually sent to several museums and other places for display. But much was dumped first into temporary tanks on Navy property, then into tanks at Fort Fisher.
The tanks were initially covered by plywood, as there wasn’t money for proper lids, said Leslie Bright, who was hired in 1964 as assistant at the lab and later ran it.
The plywood rotted away, and the water in the tanks filled with leaves from surrounding oaks, turning the water a swampy black.
In retrospect, Bright said, the rotting leaves may have been one of the best things that could have happened to the artifacts, as it leached the oxygen out of the water and slowed the deterioration.
Bright, who retired 13 years ago, dropped by this week to watch the students pull out the artifacts.
As he watched, he reminisced about having to learn how to preserve artifacts essentially from scratch, since there were few established techniques and every material has to be handled differently.
“No one was doing that sort of thing,” he said. “We were trying anything our minds could come up with.”
Also standing quietly nearby watching the students this week was Stan Register. Fifty years ago, he was 13 and working at a hotdog stand on the beach when the Navy divers showed up.
They were staying at a hotel across from the hotdog stand and one day invited him to come out on the barge and watch what they were doing. Register can remember seeing the outline of the wreck and the men working on it. He remembers the four buckets of bullets they let him take a few from, and the small cannon and the banded cases of rifles.
“I had no idea of the historical significance of what they were doing that day, said Register, who is now the chief of police on the Fort Fisher historic site and essentially guards the stuff he saw brought up that day. “I was just a kid then, so it was just more of an adventure than anything else.”
Before the students arrived Monday for three days of work, most of the water was pumped out of the tanks, leaving a three-foot layer of mostly rotted leaves and muck to keep the artifacts wet.
It also kept the students wet.
Dave Buttaro, an ECU graduate student in maritime studies who was up to his knees in muck Tuesday handing artifact out to the other students, looked up at Nathan Henry, the assistant state archaeologist who oversees conservation.
“Man, you guys have left this alone so long that we’re now engaged in habitat destruction,” joked Buttaro.
The work was a kind of treasure hunt, with the students never quit knowing what they would pull up next.
There were British-made Enfield rifles that were a mainstay of the war on both sides, many of them fused together in bundles the shape of the boxes that had held them.
There was tableware. There were wicked-looking antler- and ebony-handled Bowie knives, some still in the remnants of scabbards. There were bayonets, cinderblock-sized stacks of tin sheets, ax heads and chisels.
The students processed the artifacts assembly-line style, hosing them off at a grilled table setup on sawhorses, then taking them to another table covered in white plastic where they were tagged and photographed and logged in a laptop.
Finally, the items were placed in tanks of clean water in a nearby building.
By Tuesday night, nearly everything was out of the last tank, and Henry, who had been down in the morass, decided it was time to call it a day.
“Well,” he told the students, “I think you’ve got enough to keep you busy for awhile.”
Maybe even another 50 years.