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Artifact of the Month: Boatswain's Call
An Artifact Mystery Solved!

This month's artifact started out as a mysterious and hotly debated object. After several years, we can finally put the mystery to rest with a positive identification.

Author: Kim Kenyon, Archaeologist/Head Conservator

In 2019, we shared with you a mystery orb that had us stumped. After years of theories (false eye, sword pommel, decorative bead, tiny Death Star, etc.), I am delighted to share this is one enigma we can finally put to rest!

Illustration of orb

After stewing over the orb’s identity for so long, I started looking at other objects made of copper alloy that were recovered from excavation units nearby. Low and behold, a copper alloy tube had been unearthed several years before the concretion containing the orb was raised, and they were even found in the same unit. The tube of unknown purpose had been in storage at NCMM since 1998, and I asked the curation staff if I could borrow it to compare to the orb.

It was a “Eureka!” moment when I discovered that the two artifacts perfectly fit together and formed the gun (the tube) and buoy (the orb) of a boatswain’s call. The boatswain’s call is a type of whistle used for communicating orders at sea, with the distinct tones and patterns indicating exactly what order is being issued to the crew.

Boatswain's pipe

We know of two boatswains who encountered Blackbeard during La Concordes final voyage and transition to Queen Anne’s Revenge. Jean Goué was listed on La Concorde’s 1717 muster roll as the “contremaitre,” or ship’s boatswain. Ignatius Pell served as the boatswain aboard Stede Bonnet’s Revenge and was there when Blackbeard met Bonnet in September 1717; however, it is unknown if Pell ever actually boarded Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Jean Goue

While these men certainly would have used an instrument such as this in their line of duty, it will never be possible to say that this whistle definitely belonged to or was used by a specific individual. Calls were also not exclusive to boatswains but were carried by other officers as well and were often a symbol of the bearer’s rank. It is possible that this whistle was used by other individuals among the crews of both La Concorde and Queen Anne’s Revenge, or was a personal possession stolen along the way.

Exciting discoveries like this typically happen in the lab rather than on the boat the day an object is raised. It takes years of conservation to be able to simply observe an artifact in its true form, and because so many objects are incomplete, it may take decades longer to figure out exactly what purpose they serve. Even so, there is always the possibility that we may not even agree between us about an unknown object’s function. When we can determine EXACTLY what an artifact is, it is always cause for celebration among our staff (usually there is cake involved). Two decades of excavation on the site has produced such an abundance of material that we will no doubt have many more moments like this to celebrate!

- Ernaud, Francoise. 1718. Deposition of April 17. Archives Departementales de Loire-Atlantique, Nantes, France. Serie B 4578 Folio 56v-57.
- Höglund, Patrik. 2019. “Symbols of Power: Attributes of Rank on Warships in the 17th Century,” in On War On Board: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on Early Modern Maritime Violence and Warfare, Johan Rönnby, editor, pp. 39-50. Södertörns högskola, Huddinge, Sweden.
-Kenyon, Kimberly. 2023. “The Stories They Tell: Recent Finds from Queen Anne’s Revenge/La Concorde (1718),” in Dead Man’s Chest: Even More Archaeology of Piracy, Russell Skowronek and Charles Ewen, eds., pp. 13-26. University Press Florida.
- South Carolina Court of Vice-Admiralty. 1719. The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates. Benjamin Cowse, London, England.

-Illustration of mystery orb. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Reunited buoy and gun of boatswain’s whistle from site 31CR314. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Jean Goué listed in La Concorde’s muster roll from 1717.

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