RIMAP Research - Non-Vessels

Published by Kathy Abbass on Friday, 22nd February 2019 - 12:00PM

The power house foundation at the Fort Adams marine railway. Photo by John Hoagland, © RIMAP 2012.

RIMAP Maritime History and Marine Archaeology Research - The Non-Vessels 

© RIMAP 2012

The interested public usually thinks of marine archaeology only as the study of historic shipwrecks, and especially the remote sensing technology to find them, and the fieldwork to document them. But this is only part of the story. 

Archaeology is the study of sites and artifacts, and the technologies that made them, in order understand how people lived in a particular place and time. The ships that are the focus of most marine archaeology studies were supported by many land-based economic and social systems. The shipyards that built and repaired the vessels depended on the raw materials, labor, and capital that came from shore-side businesses. The merchant companies and navies that sent the ships on their voyages were part of larger institutions related to trade and political power. All of these contribute to a particular vessel's history  and leave evidence to be discovered in that vessel's archaeological site. 

To understand a ship and how it integrates into its particular culture, marine archaeologists also study of the sources of those raw materials, labor, and capital, and especially the social systems that supported that ship's useful life. Rhode Island's nickname is the "Ocean State" because of its long dependence on the ocean, and therefore the ships that sailed it. But those ships could not have been built, supplied, manned, or sent on their way without all of the land-side businesses found in the inland Rhode Island communities. Therefore, even those Rhode Island communities without access to the Bay or the Sound made a contribution to the colony and state's local marine activities. 

All of Rhode Island is truly the "Ocean State" and RIMAP's interest includes that wider study. The following entries show some of that variety, and the following essays are organized by topic.

RIMAP's marine studies are on land, too. Graphic © RIMAP 2011.


Pre-contact Studies: 

Given the populations that lived in Rhode Island before the coming of Europeans, it is not surprising that there are so many pre-contact sites on land in Rhode Island. However, there is the probability that similar land sites will also be discovered in local waters. During glacial times, the ocean was much lower and much of what is now covered by the Bay and the Sound was dry land. People lived there, and so archaeological sites are likely to be found there. Although the heavy silt sometimes makes it difficult to survey the most promising locations for such inundated terrestrial sites, especially along the shores of the original river bed in Narragansett Bay, the occasional find of a pre-contact artifact suggests that such sites exist. Some of RIMAP's professional archaeology team are specialists in pre-contact studies, and RIMAP has offered that as a specialty class, and included a demonstration of how to make stone tools. 

RI State Archaeologist Tim Ives demonstrates flint knapping to a RIMAP class. Photo by Frans Jurgens, © RIMAP 2016.

Historic Industries

Rhode Island's early economy included farming and fishing; a number of industries, such as quarries and mines, smithies and forges (even for cannon) and distilleries. There were many domestic trades such as tanners, cabinetmakers, and taverns. There were marine businesses to support the ships that sailed from the colony/state in its many merchant ventures. RIMAP's historical research about the businesses in the state during the American Revolution is summarized in a number of printed Heritage Trail Guides to the historic locations of the forts, hospitals, industries, and transport and communication systems. After the Revolution, Rhode Island was the home of the Industrial Revolution in America and by the 19th century, manufacturing was the state's economic strength. In the 20th century the US Navy became increasingly important and defense industries are still important local economic drivers today. All of these have contributed to the rich maritime history, and marine archaeology, of the "Ocean State."

The RIMAP Heritage Trail Guide for selected locations for transportation and communication systems during the Revolutionary War. © RIMAP 2012.

Portsmouth - Prudence Island Wharf: Many of the early piers and wharves in Rhode Island are now covered over with modern construction (see Long Wharf, below). Others are abandoned and only the rubble of their foundations proclaim their earlier existence. Along the northwest shore of Prudence Island was such a Colonial wharf, and it served the ferry from Warwick Neck. RIMAP's investigation of the Prudence Island wharf determined that the foundation stones are completely disturbed and that there are no visible artifacts on the site.

RIMAP volunteer diver Bill Burns at the Prudence Island wharf. Photo by Kathy Abbass, © RIMAP 2012.

Barrington - Brickyard Canal: This canal served the barges that carried the bricks made at the Barrington industry to merchants in Providence. The brickyard ceased production in 1946, but entrance of the canal at Nayatt Point, and the turning basin there, are still visible. 

The mouth of the Barrington Brickyard Canal. Photo by Kathy Abbass, © RIMAP 2003.

Newport - Goat Island Torpedo Station: The US Navy ordnance development facility on Goat Island, called the Torpedo Station, was an important 19th- and early 20th-century manufacturing industry in Rhode Island. Its scope expanded to include the test facility on Gould Island. By the late 20th century the Naval Undersea Warfare System in Middletown had replaced the Torpedo Station, the facility on Goat Island was disestablished, and the Gould Island activities were reduced to only the firing range. Despite the modernization of that technology, there are derelict torpedoes and other ordnance in Rhode Island waters, and some could still be armed and hazardous. RIMAP includes those dangers in its volunteer training. 

The US Navy Torpedo Station on Goat Island. Top - The island in 1900; Bottom - The island in 1930-1945. Images from Wikipedia.

Newport - Fort Adams Marine Railway and Power House Foundation: This structure was part of the former US Army shipyard on the grounds north of Fort Adams. The railway serviced the army vessels attached to the fort. It extends east more than 400 feet from the power house on the shore into Newport Harbor, toward the south end of Goat Island. RIMAP's detailed mapping of the structure was compared to the railway's original construction plans that are housed at the Crandall Engineering Company in Boston. The timbers exhibit very little deterioration, and one roller box is on bottom nearby, but the underwater structure was intact until 2008 when the top was dislodged. RIMAP measured and photographed the site, and identified some of the local biota. The RIMAP Site Manager for the Fort Adams marine railway study is John Hoagland.

The Fort Adams US Army marine railway. Top - Aerial photo by Tom Freeman; Bottom - Site maps by John Hoagland. Graphic © RIMAP 2017.

Block Island - Sewage Outfall Survey: Much of the archaeology done in the marine environment is not glamorous. For example, in 2002 RIMAP's professional archaeologists conducted a non-disturbance survey of the area of the planned the Block Island sewage outfall extension. There have been many ships lost at Block Island, and that means areas where historic submerged cultural resources might be found must be checked before industrial development can take place. This is not marine archaeology that always makes exciting finds, but it can be important for preservation and public safety. 

RIMAP divers searching the area of the Block Island sewage outfall. Photo by Kathy Abbass, © RIMAP 2002.

Aids to Navigation: There were many lighthouses and other features that guided ships as they approached Rhode Island ports. Many are still in use as aids to safe navigation, and all were particularly important before the era of modern technology. RIMAP's studies, especially of the American Revolution in Rhode Island, include such non-shipwreck sites.

The historic Beavertail Light at the south end of Jamestown. Top - The original Beavertail light house before 1780; Bottom - Its remaining foundations today. Drawing from LC; Photo by Jamestown Lighthouse Assoc. Graphic © RIMAP 2017.

Changes in the footprints of the land

Marine archaeology must take into account how human intervention has changed the land, especially in port areas and other locations (often industrial) that are part of the marine environment. Most of Rhode Island's ports and shorelines have changed over time, and RIMAP studies have included some excellent examples.

Newport - Goat Island: The north and south ends of Goat Island have changed dramatically since Colonial times, and the adjacent waters to the south, east, and north of the island have been dredged to allow increasingly larger vessels safe access to Newport's Inner Harbor. For instance, in the 18th-century there was a spit to the north of Goat Island that was uncovered at low tide. This is where the 26 pirates were buried in 1723.

In the 19th century a lighthouse was put at the north end of the spit, and a granite breakwater was installed to protect the steamship landing on the Newport town shore to the east. The 1938 hurricane destroyed this breakwater and it was not replaced. When the Navy disestablished its Torpedo Station on Goat Island, the buildings were razed and the former spit and breakwater were filled to create a north extension of the island to join the lighthouse. A modern hotel now sits on the landfill that covers the spit where the pirates were buried.

The original south tip of Goat Island was also a shallow spit that curled into the narrow southern entrance to Newport's Inner Harbor. In the 19th century this spit was removed, as well as a number of large boulders that were hazards to navigation. The western shoreline of the island has been strengthened with a sea wall, and in the late 20th century the former navy piers that serviced the Torpedo Station were developed into a major yachting facility. 

RIMAP's interest is in the many historic ships known to have been lost near Goat Island. How the island has changed through time is an important part of understanding what happened to those vessels.

Maps show how Newport's Goat Island footprint has changed. L-R: Blaskowitz (1777), Dripps (1860), and Google Earth. Graphic © RIMAP 2015.

Warwick - Greene Island: Greene Island, in Occupessatuxet Cove south of Warwick's Gaspee Point, has also changed dramatically over time, but from natural processes, not human development. An understanding of those changes are part of RIMAP's study of the ships that were abandoned in the area.  

Maps show how Warwick's Greene Island footprint has changed. L-R: Blaskowitz (1777); An early US navigation chart; Modern navigation chart showing 3 wrecks (only 2 still visible). Graphic © RIMAP 2014.

Newport - The Cove: The northeastern corner of Newport harbor was always a center of maritime activity. In the early 18th century Long Wharf was built to connect the center of the town to Gravelly Point (now the south end of Washington Street) and to enclose the Cove. Small vessels could enter the Cove for service via a small opening, and larger vessels stayed in the outer harbor. There were many maritime businesses in buildings on the wharf, and over time the Cove began to fill in. By the mid-19th century, the center of the cove was filled enough to support the railroad that served the adjacent steamship terminal. By 1907 the Cove was completely filled in and the rail yard had expanded. This has all disappeared and the now area is closely developed with commercial buildings and a tourist center.

RIMAP's interest is in the Cove and the shoreline of Newport because of the many maritime business there and the ships they serviced. How the Cove and Newport's waterfront have changed through time are important to an understanding of the city's maritime history.

The Newport Cove. L-R: Blaskowitz (1777), Newport Atlas (1876), Newport Atlas (1901), GoogleEarth (modern). Graphic, © RIMAP 2017.

Newport - Long Wharf and The Cove: The original 18th-century cribbing used to create Long Wharf was still visible in the Cove area as late as the 1950s. Since Long Wharf was a center of the earliest marine trades in Newport, it is likely that deep under this now-dry land will be found materials associated with those businesses. Certainly, a 19th-century photograph shows an abandoned vessel near the area where the Newport bus terminal is now located, with ship's masts visible on the far side of Long Wharf.  

Top - A derelict vessel (in the red oval) in the Cove before the area was completely filled in. Bottom - The same area today. Top: Photograph, NHS; Bottom: GoogleEarth image. Graphic, © RIMAP 2017.

Charlestown - Aircraft graveyard: Some archaeologists specialize in aircraft, and RIMAP has included service planes in its inventories of US Naval cultural resources lost in Rhode Island. RIMAP has not been involved in the discovery or study of these aircraft. However, the visit to a collector of naval and commercial aircraft debris (at his private property in Charlestown), illustrated how much might still be found in Rhode Island. 

RI State marine archaeologist Charlotte Taylor at the Charlestown collection of aircraft. Photo by Abbass, © RIMAP 1999.

RIMAP has conducted many studies on land and on water, investigations of shipwrecks and other historic cultural resources, and all done by volunteers under professional direction. What is usually overlooked in any description of these activities is how much preparation it takes to get a team and its equipment ready, and all the post-processing and interpretation of data that takes place after the exciting fieldwork. What is described in this website is only part of what must done to conduct such research, but RIMAP's mission to make these experiences available to the public is certainly a success.

RIMAP volunteer Butch Cormier working on ground tackle. Photo by Greg DeAscentis, © RIMAP 2004.

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