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Blue China
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Odyssey crew prepare the artifact lifting container for descent to the seabed
The ROV ZEUS is launched from the Odyssey Explorer for descent to the seabed
The glazed earthenware jar that led to the discovery of the "Blue China" shipwreck site
A British shell-edge plate is recovered from the
Slip-decorated ceramic mugs recovered from the

"Blue China" Operational Overview

The discovery of the "Blue China" shipwreck all started with a jar. A glazed earthenware jar, unremarkable save for the fact that it had been brought to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean from nearly 1,200 feet (365 meters) deep. It was an unexpected prize in a Florida trawlerman’s catch, found 70 nautical miles off the coast of Jacksonville in 2002. The story of the jar ultimately made its way to Odyssey Marine Exploration, which surveyed the site in 2003, prior to discovering the SS Republic® shipwreck later that year. At the time of discovery, three artifacts were recovered—a bowl, and a pitcher containing a glass tumbler—for the dual purposes of arresting the site in court and in an effort to identify and date the vessel.

Without knowing the identify of the specific vessel, Odyssey named the site "Blue China" from the presence of a large quantity of ceramics, a number of which featured blue decoration. Later research however, would reveal that this cargo consisted largely of earthenwares, with very few items actually being “china” (i.e., Chinese porcelain or bone china).

In 2005, Odyssey revisited the "Blue China" shipwreck and noted an alarming amount of displacement and destruction resulting from trawl nets being dragged over the site since the last visit. Little of the original context remained undisturbed, and much of what remained of a substantial cargo of ceramics had been smashed and scattered. Unfortunately, it appeared that the site was in imminent danger of total destruction.  The decision was made to use a brief window of fair weather to undertake a “rescue archaeology" excavation.

A photomosaic was constructed and the relative positions of artifacts were recorded using software specially designed by Odyssey for this purpose. Retrieval of delicate artifacts was achieved with the use of a soft silicone rubber limpet suction device—a tool consistently employed for Odyssey’s deep-ocean shipwreck projects. Fitted to the port manipulator arm of the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and powered by the venturi pump, the limpet suction attachment permits fragile objects to be recovered from the ocean floor without damage or marking. All artifact recoveries were made with the ROV hovering over the site rather than setting down.

Artifacts, structural parts, and other objects of interest collected from the site were placed in numbered plastic containers of an appropriate size to securely house the materials recovered. Each container was designed to cope with the effects of varying pressure, depth, and temperature to ensure its contents were safely transported to the surface.

When filled, artifact containers were then placed in a large metal lifting basket with divisions for holding the plastic containers. Each division is numbered, as is each container inside the divisions, so all are identifiable on camera and can be recorded in Odyssey’s DataLog® system.

Once artifacts were brought to the surface, archaeological record-keeping was performed by hand using paper finds sheets and logged later into a spreadsheet for tracking. Prior to first-aid conservation, artifacts were photographed on board the recovery vessel, Odyssey Explorer, and a separate photo log and file were created. With the sub-sea and surface recording systems, plus a separate inventory and management database maintained by the conservator, Odyssey can track the history of any single artifact from its first observation on the seafloor to its final destination and disposition.

As witnessed at the "Blue China" site, deep-ocean shipwrecks are not in a secure and stable state of equilibrium. Nor are they immune to post-wreck damage such as the destruction wrought by modern fishing trawl nets dragged across the seabed often thousands of feet deep. Supported by this alarming evidence, Odyssey has adopted the philosophy that with the discovery of deep-ocean shipwrecks comes the responsibility to archaeologically investigate them, and to share with the public—not just the scientific community—the knowledge and cultural material recovered from the site. The needless alternative may be the loss of such sites and most importantly, the irretrievable loss of a significant historical resource.

In accomplishing its archaeological excavation at the "Blue China" site, Odyssey was able to recover as many diagnostic artifacts as possible in an effort to identify and date the remains, and to recover as many intact ceramics as possible for study and exhibit before everything was destroyed. In addition, the recovery process permitted the opportunity to conduct testing and further improvement of data logging software and deep-water archaeology techniques—enhancements which Odyssey has since applied to more recent shipwreck projects. 

 

 

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