Field School wraps up shipwreck excavation

COURTESY PHOTO

Both the port and starboard sides of a wreck believed to be the Ada K. Damon were uncovered by students from Salem State University on the Crane Estate this week.

IPSWICH — The Ada K. Damon may have been buried long ago, but thanks to the efforts of an archaeological field school, it will now live on in records.

On Tuesday, 15 students and their instructors began to dig up and study a shipwreck on Steep Hill Beach on the Crane Estate in Ipswich. Their work was part of the field school run by the Seafaring Education and Maritime Archaeological Heritage Programs through Salem State University. 

Their goals were to examine the structure of the ship and learn whatever they could about it — including confirming whether it was indeed the Ada K. Damon. The evidence for that seems strong now.

“The measurements fit what we found in the American shipping record closest to the wrecking date,” said Captain Laurel Seaborn, SEAMAHP co-founder and instructor, on Thursday.

Seaborn said that records show that in 1906, the Damon — a schooner that crashed on the beach in a 1909 Christmas snowstorm — was measured at 80 feet. By the students’ measurements, the vessel on Steep Hill Beach is 79 feet, which Seaborn said is “similar enough” to draw a conclusion that it’s the same boat. 

She also noted the next closest recorded wreck occurred further from the beach near the Ipswich lighthouse, and that ship was longer than 80 feet. 

Confirming the ship’s identity wasn’t the only thing the group accomplished during their three-day excavation.

“What was really exciting today is that a shipwright came into speak with us — Harold Burnham,” said Seaborn. “One of his observations was that there was obviously some repairs and restoration while the ship was working. They had braced part of the bow with newer wood so it looks completely different.”

Burnham was referred to a piece of wood that the students and Victor Mastone, director of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources, found Tuesday afternoon. The students were mystified by the wood, as it was significantly cleaner and newer-looking than the rest of the ship. 

Students also discovered trunnels — also known as “tree nails” or dowels. Rust found on the ship’s wood proves that both trunnels and iron nails were used in its construction. 

“The students were very excited when they found those,” said Seaborn.

Though there were triumphs in the project, there were also challenges. The field school had to cope with a difficult tide schedule, bad weather on Wednesday and limited class time. Due to these factors, the group was unable to get to the bottom of the boat, as Seaborn had hoped they would, but she wasn’t too disappointed.

“Every challenge is a learning curve,” she said. “Overall, it went amazingly well. The weather could have been worse. No one got hurt. Everything functioned and flowed. You could see students learning something and being really excited about it and that gets you excited.”

The students were able to get part of both sides of the ship exposed, so they could see the full structure — including that it was leaning toward the right side. 

On a trip to the Peabody Essex Museum, they compared the stern post to a stern post on display. The stern post they found at the wreck was curved like the one at the museum, so they guessed they were near the bottom, though it was unclear how much further they’d have to dig to get to it. 

On Friday the students will close out the field school by drawing up their observations and measurements so that a full picture of the ship can be compiled on graph paper and put into public records. 

Seaborn hopes that she’ll be able to bring students or a full research team back to the site in the future to uncover and record more about the ship. 

Staff writer Amanda Ostuni can be reached at 978-338-2660 or aostuni@salemnews.com.

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