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Artifact of the Month: What We Don't See

Co-Principal Investigator and Senior Conservator Kimberly Kenyon explores the unseen experiences of working with the QAR collection.

Author: Kimberly Kenyon, Senior Conservator

As archaeologists, we define a collection by the tangible artifacts left behind. What do they look like? What are they made of? How were they manufactured? What can they tell us? We photograph them, we conserve them, and we record every detail so that nothing is overlooked. If an artifact is ever lost, the potential it held for new revelations is gone forever, so documentation is key.

But what about those intangible things that we can’t photograph, or hold in our hands, or study under a microscope?

Rope wadding from a cannon
Pitch-soaked wadding removed from a cannon

One of the most interesting things we encounter archaeologically has to do with scent. Ships at sea had a distinct smell, and if you visit a tall ship now, you can still get that sense. The smells of the wooden hull, the salt air, and marine life are everywhere, but even more pervasive is the smell of pitch. Pitch and tar were some of the unsung heroes of a sailing vessel during its life at sea. They were critical to the health of the vessel. Pitch was used to waterproof the hull and to grease and protect the lines from fraying. Even now after being submerged for 300 years, when we discover rope or textile, many times we can still smell the distinct and intense pine in the resin, as if it had been freshly applied.

Reenactors firing a cannon
Cloud of smoke after firing a cannon

When weapons were in use, there would have also been a lingering odor of gunpowder in the air, which is quite sulfurous. Sometimes when we unload cannon (many of ours were loaded when the ship ran aground), that sulfur smell is still there. It is said that scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. It also sparks the imagination – you can close your eyes and almost picture what it must have been like on the deck of a ship a long way from home.

Ships were full of sounds as well – the creaking of the hull, the stretching and relaxing of lines as the hull shifts, the shouting of orders. We have found artifacts that speak to all of the different senses, but smell is the one that we can still attest to personally. Once you smell that, you never forget it. The fact that we can still sense now what sailors were able to sense then really connects us through time. It reminds us that archaeology is not just collections of stuff, but evidence of the human experience.

Pitch-soaked rope wadding removed from Cannon C15. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
A team of reenactors trained in the use of black powder weapons firing a cannon at a QAR Open House. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

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