The Newport Harbor Site Studies

Published by Kathy Abbass on Tuesday, 12th February 2019 - 12:00PM



© RIMAP 2017

By the end of 2016 the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP) had located 10 sites in Newport's Outer Harbor that appear to be 18th-century British transports. RIMAP diving volunteers had mapped 9 of them and will map #10 in 2017. RIMAP's search for the rest of the fleet continues. 

The 9 site maps are to the same scale, to show the variation is site sizes. Graphic © RIMAP 2016.

There is a great deal more to know about each of these sites, but a comparison of the site maps gives an interesting hint about how the vessels were used to protect Newport from the French threat in 1778. For instance, the three sites to the west of Goat Island are oriented slightly to the northeast, and the four sites to the north of Goat Island are oriented slightly to the northwest. This suggests that the two groups were scuttled at different times, with different wind directions and/or different tides. The northernmost site is oriented athwart the narrow passage between Coaster's Harbor Island and Gull Rock, consistent with the need to keep other ships from passing through. The site to the northeast is in very shallow water, and it's story is as yet unknown.

Linear searches parallel to a baseline. L-R: Kathy Abbass (RIMAP), Bruce Terrell (NOAA Archaeologist), and two local NOAA Stellwagon Banks Sanctuary volunteer trainees. © RIMAP 2000.

RIMAP offers training to the public about how to map sites, using linear searches parallel to a baseline, circle searches from a pivot, and the use of grids. See the "Participate" Program of this website to apply for RIMAP's next classes. 

Search areas covered using linear and circle techniques. Graphic © RIMAP 1998.

RIMAP also uses a grid system to control the careful mapping of a site. The least expensive and simplest grid is made of a series of lines attached to a site’s perimeter stakes that have been installed at regular intervals. This creates individually named cells for the whole site. All of the cells in the site maps published in this Program measure 3' x 3'.

The 3' x 3' movable grid, further divided into 1' cells. © RIMAP 2007.

To map a site,  RIMAP's volunteer divers then use a smaller, movable grid that is placed over a cell of the string grid installed on the site. They then sketch what is seen in each cell of the site into waterproof paper printed with a scale drawing of the cells. The waterproof sheets are identified as to what part of the site has been sketched, and after all of the cells of the site are sketched, these sheets are assembled to create the complete site map. 

One sketch sheet and its location in the final site map for RI 2119. Graphics © RIMAP 2016.

RI 2119 is north of the Newport Bridge, oriented east/west to block the narrow channel between Coaster's Harbor Island and Gull Rock. This is a double site, including an 18th-century ballast pile with a modern barge on its northeastern corner. The exposed part of the 18th-century site measures approximately 57' x 21'. The yellow circles in the site map represent the sand bags installed to stabilize the test excavation areas that revealed the ship's structure. There is a 20th-century electrical cable (inert) along the west wide of the ballast pile. The barge has deteriorated over the years since RIMAP began to study RI 2119. This site has long been known to the local dive community and it is a good habitat for the local lobster population, which explains the many lobster pots caught on the barge.

RI 2119: Comparison of the photomosaic to diver sketches of the same part of the site. Graphics © RIMAP 2016.

The string grid on the site can also be used to control photography and videography, but poor underwater visibility has made those tasks a challenge. Diver sketches often show more details.

RI 2125, showing the location of the test excavation in pink. Graphic © RIMAP 2016.

RI 2125 is located in shallow water in the far northeast corner of the Outer Harbor north of the Newport Bridge. This ship's structure is oriented north-northeast. The exposed portion of this site measures approximately 28' x 15' and it stands proud only about 3' from the bottom. This is an 18th-century site that includes two cannon. If it is one of the transports scuttled in 1778, the presumption is that it might have been swept into this corner of the harbor by the hurricane that took place the following week. In any case, this site is an easy shore dive and has long been a favorite spot for artifact hunters. 

RI 2125 and its vertical profiles of two transverse sections. Graphic © RIMAP 2016.

By 1998 Kathy Abbass, RIMAP's Principal Investigator and Executive Director, had made the connection between the LORD SANDWICH transport sunk in Newport Harbor in 1778, and the ENDEAVOUR Bark of Captain Cook's first circumnavigation. Australia considers the ENDEAVOUR to be its founding vessel, and when proof of the LSexE connection was released, it generated immediate international interest, especially from Paul Hundley, the America Gallery curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM). On March 30, 1999, Hundley and Prof, Riess joined the RIMAP team to confirm RI 2125 as an 18th-century site and a potential transport. Over the next few years ANMM archaeological staff members joined RIMAP teams for the intense studies of RI 2119 and RI 2125. 

The RIMAP divers and guests visit RI 2125 on March 30, 1999. L-R: Greg DeAscentis (RIMAP volunteer diver), Paul Hundley (Australian National Maritime Museum), John Hoagland (RIMAP volunteer diver), Warren Riess (University of Maine). Shore support: L-R: Kerry Lynch (Now RIMAP Transport Study Field Supervisor) and Kathy Abbass (RIMAP Principal Investigator/Executive Director). © RIMAP 1999.

After conducting the studies of RI 2119 and RI 2125, RIMAP teams continued the search for further 18th-century sites, mainly south of the Newport Bridge. As RIMAP divers mapped the sites discovered in the 2005-2007 remote sensing effort, the teams took no samples and retrieved only those few artifacts exposed on a site's surface that were at risk of damage or theft. This mapping was very slow work, but by 2015 RIMAP could announce that it had located what appeared to be 9 of the 13 transport sites. 

RI 2396, the smallest site. © RIMAP 2016.

RI 2396 is located just south of the Newport Bridge. It is oriented slightly to the west of north, and the exposed portion appears to be only 24' x 12'. The small size of this pile may be because the site is more disturbed or more heavily silted over than the other 18th-century sites in the Outer Harbor. There is an historic anchor located to its south.

RI 2578. © RIMAP 2016.

There are 4 sites nested together to the south of RI 2396, and to west of the North Battery on the Newport shore, now called Battery Park. Three of these sites are in a general north/south row. They were found by 2007 and subsequently mapped. The northernmost of these 3 sites is RI 2578. It is oriented slightly to the west of north and the exposed portion measures approximately 45' x 21'. There is a 20th-century electrical cable (inert) that crosses the northwest corner of the ballast pile.  

RI 2394. © RIMAP 2016.

The site to the south of RI 2578 is RI 2394, the largest site of this group. It is oriented to the north-northwest, and its exposed features measure 63' x 22'. There are at least 5 visible cannons on the site. The wooden framing of one side of the vessel is exposed and a 20th-century electrical cable (inert) crosses the northwest corner of the ballast pile.

RI 2393. © RIMAP 2016.

The third site in this group is RI 2393, and it is further to the south of RI 2394. It is also oriented to the north/northwest. It is a densely packed ballast pile, the exposed portion of which measures 30' x 24. There is another historic anchor to the south of this site. The relief of this site was not determined in the field, but the remote sensing target suggests that it stands higher than the two sites to the north, a possible indication that it has been less disturbed. 

Site 2794 (in red circle), yet to be mapped. Graphic © RIMAP 2016.

In 2016 RIMAP found another 18th-century in this group to the west of the North Battery. RIMAP plans to map it during the September 2017 field season. 

RI 2579. © RIMAP 2016.

There are 3 sites to the west of Goat Island. RI 2579 is the northernmost of these, and its map identifies only the site footprint because RIMAP funding was limited for this particular work. However, the site is clearly oriented to the north-northeast, and the exposed portion measures 57' x 24'.

RI 2595. © RIMAP 2016.

RIMAP "discovered" RI 2595 by noting a potential target in the NOAA remote sensing data posted on that government website. The Australian National Maritime Museum archaeologists returned in 2015 to assist RIMAP in mapping this site, and continues as a RIMAP partner in the search for the LORD SANDWICH ex ENDEAVOUR. RI 2595 is oriented to the north-northeast, the exposed features cover an  area 61' x 20' , and one side of the wooden structure is visible.  

RI 2580. © RIMAP 2016.

The RIMAP team's first impressions of RI 2580 were that it was very large and artifact rich, but that some of the cultural material appeared to be later than the 18th century. There were so many different types of pottery on the site that the team gave it the nickname "Ceramic Site," although none of this material was collected. A number of ships are known to have been lost in Newport's Outer Harbor in the 19th century, and RI 2580 could be one of these. However, the site deserves careful consideration because it is near the 2 other confirmed 18th-century sites west of Goat Island, it is similarly oriented to the north-northeast, and there is the possibility that the later artifactual material is intrusive. The exposed portion of this site measures 48' x 21'. 

The LORD SANDWICH ex ENDEAVOUR® patch with the RIMAP and Australian National Maritime Museum logos. © RIMAP 2017.

With the renewal of the relationship between RIMAP and the ANMM, RIMAP designed a patch to illustrate this cooperative venture.  RIMAP seeks other institutional and corporate sponsorship for this exciting project!

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