Author: Elise Carroll, Conservator
When people think of maritime history and piracy, cannon (which is actually the plural!) and cannon ammunition immediately come to mind. What you may not think about are the accessories required to operate a cannon at sea. One vital accessory is called a cannon apron. Just like wearing an apron while cooking to prevent getting your clothes dirty, a cannon apron is placed on the breech of a cannon to keep debris from affecting its use.
Cannon aprons were designed to fit over the breech (the back end) of a cannon and protect the touchhole. When loaded, the touchhole is the access point to the cannon’s gunpowder. Aprons covered the touchhole to prevent the contamination of the charge from water and debris. An apron can also help prevent an accidental firing while cannon was loaded but not in use.
La Concorde left port on its third and final voyage with 14 or 16 cannon (depending on which primary resource), and Blackbeard was rumored to have up to 40 on board once the ship became Queen Anne’s Revenge. Having this many guns (of which we have discovered 30, recovered 24, and completed treatment on 10), it is not surprising that we have found some cannon accessories, including 16 cannon aprons! The cannon aprons are square sheets of lead with two holes on the sides to tie the apron tight onto the cannon and have a series of “fingers.” The fingers are cut ends of the lead sheet that were bent over the breech of the cannon to create a tight fit. Lead is a very malleable metal and can easily be folded while still retaining its shape, even without heat. This versatility made lead a great material for fashioning aprons.
The soft metal is also easily scratched, damaged, or etched. Due to this, several cannon aprons have been marked. Some marks could be from wear and tear or occurred while underwater for over 300 years, but some aprons have distinctive marks called graffiti. This graffiti is not naturally occurring damage but has been carved in by someone on board the vessel! From our site, markings of “W,” “M,” two interlocking “V”s, and arrows have also been found etched onto aprons. This graffiti is similar to those carved into timbers in 17th and 18th century English homes, called “apotropaic” symbols, meant to protect the residents from witchcraft.
Out of all 16 positively identified aprons, only one apron has been found “in situ,” or on the cannon it belongs to. Cannon 2300.000, also called C16, had an apron found covering the touchhole and concreted in place! To learn more about this apron specifically, check back in a few weeks when we post a blog about finding and cleaning C16’s apron.
-Cannon apron still attached to cannon C16. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Cannon apron newly removed from C16. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-A cannon apron with graffiti, from site 31CR314. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Schnitzer, Laura K. 2012. Aprons of Lead: Examination of an Artifact Assemblage from the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Site. Master's Thesis, Department of History, East Carolina University. Accessed August 25, 2022: https://thescholarship.ecu.edu/handle/10342/3842.
-Wilde-Ramsing, M. 2009. Historical Background for the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Site. QAR Research Report and Bulletin Series, QAR-R-09-02. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
*With a collection as large as ours, we are fortunate to have students and other researchers study the collection and research and write on our material culture! The preceding is summarized and updated by Elise Carroll from “Aprons of Lead: Examination of an Artifact Assemblage from the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Site,” an ECU Program in Maritime Studies thesis by Laura K. Schnitzer.