Eighteenth Century British explorer Capt. James Cook explored more of the world than any man who ever lived and artifacts from his most famous vessel, the HM Bark Endeavor, could soon be rising from the waters off Newport thanks to decades of work by a local marine archaeology nonprofit.
Meanwhile, officials from the Australian National Maritime Museum are once again descending upon the area as interest piques on the fleet of 13 British transport ships sunk during the Revolutionary War in Newport Harbor. Australia was first explored by Cook aboard the Endeavor and any artifacts or treasures that emerge from the wreckage could be vital to their historic record since it’s considered their founding vessel.
Though the Endeavor’s potential resting place among those wrecks was announced 15 years ago, scientists and volunteers are now much closer to potentially identifying the exact location and begin excavating artifacts. RIMAP presented the results of an intensive, time-consuming mapping project in January that details eight sites. Those results prompted an upcoming meeting on March 25 between RIMAP and Kevin Sumption, director of the Australian museum, said RIMAP Founder and Executive Director Dr. Kathy Abbass.
“It is slow work and it takes a long time, but we’ve made great progress,” Abbass said, noting that the organization is hopeful that talks might lead to financial and logistical support in getting divers under the water.
“Rhode Island owns the ship if we find her, but the Aussies are very interested and they want to share it,” Abbass said. “But we don’t want to give her away.”
Excavating means RIMAP will need a facility to manage artifacts and they’re eyeing a site in Portsmouth near the High School that Abbass said is an “overgrown and unfortunately neglected” spot that happens to be Butts Hill Fort and the largest Revolutionary War earthwork in Southern New England and the center of the American line in the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778.
That makes it a perfect spot for RIMAP’s long term vision to build a facility that would enable them to greet visitors from around the world who would be interested in not just Capt. Cook and Endeavor but any and all artifacts that come from the wreckage sites as well as the overarching story of the war and the sea.
The National Park Service has given RIMAP grants to craft a management plan for Butt Hill Fort, but that’s a first step. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll find Endeavor or be able to confirm it even if they do. But they know that there is international interest in that ship and the enormous fundraising challenges that lie ahead will be much easier to meet as long as Capt. Cook’s name is attached.
“We can use it to our advantage,” Abbass said. “It would be a tremendous historic tourism destination.”
RIMAP is different from other organizations that do similar work in that it doesn't fall under the auspices of a federal agency and isn’t part of any school or university. Some money comes in through grants but the bulk of the work is done by volunteers.
Abbass said that means the people who work on RIMAP’s projects don’t have to be graduate students enrolled in a marine science or archaeology program.
“We’re committed to that small, democratic approach to archeology,” Abbass said.
In fact, RIMAP offers classes in marine archaeology, site mapping, artifact management, history lessons and other classes out of the Masonic Temple in Portsmouth. Abbass said that having the public participate in this way gives the programs an extra boost of support in many ways. More than 800 people have passed through the program so far and more are always encouraged.
Teams will be trained by professionals in April and anyone who wants to be a diver can get involved, though you don’t have to be a diver to lend a hand.
Be sure to go to RIMAP’s Web site for more information, volunteer opportunities and details on their work on mapping shipwrecks in Newport Harbor and Capt. Cook’s story.