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VCU researcher discovers 19th-century anchor while hunting for juvenile sturgeon

19th century ship anchor
Discovered by a Rice Rivers Center researcher while trawling the James River, the five-foot-long 19th century anchor will go on display overlooking the river. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

In search of juvenile sturgeon, Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Matt Balazik, Ph.D., was pulling a trawl along the bottom of the James River near the VCU Rice Rivers Center when the large conical net he was pulling behind the boat hit a snag.

It’s not unusual for the trawl to get stuck. But the reason for this particular snag was highly unusual. It was stuck on a 5-foot-long, wrought-iron anchor that most likely once belonged to a two, three or four-mast commercial cargo vessel that traversed the James River during the 1800s, possibly prior to the Civil War.

“It was a pleasant surprise because usually when we snag something big it turns out to be a tree or large piece of metal,” Balazik said. “Even though technically this is just an old piece of iron that we had to pull up by hand, and caused damage to our gear that took days to repair, I’m very happy we snagged it.”

Balazik took the anchor back to the Rice Rivers Center — a field station that is part of VCU Life Sciences and devoted to environmental research, teaching and public service — where it will soon be put on display, overlooking the James River in a custom-made cradle.

“We’ve found some smaller anchors, and random interesting things, but this anchor is by far the most amazing,” Balazik said.

Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the Rice Rivers Center, knew the anchor was special but didn’t know how best to conserve it or details of its likely history. So Garman contacted a former VCU master’s degree student, Chris Egghart, who is now a cultural resources specialist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Egghart suggested that Garman contact John D. Broadwater, Ph.D., underwater archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, to find out more.

The James River was where it was happening. The Chesapeake Bay, with all its rivers and tributaries, was just loaded with small vessels moving cargo and plying the bay with various kinds of commerce. And the James River was a major part of that.

Researching the anchor’s history


Between 1978 and 1989, Broadwater was senior underwater archaeologist of the Department of Historic Resources, a role in which he directed the Yorktown Shipwreck Archaeological Project, which culminated with the excavation of a British ship sunk during the last major battle of the American Revolution. Following that, Broadwater worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. He rejoined the Department of Historic Resources this year.

Broadwater researched the anchor, and was able to make a few inferences about its origins.

“Anchors were pretty similar all through the 19th century. In the 18th, generally for bigger vessels, anchors generally had wooden stocks. And then they got into the period where they were getting more proficient with iron mongering and so they could fabricate iron better and stronger and they tended to go with the iron crossbar instead [like with this anchor],” Broadwater said.

Pinning down the precise decade the anchor found itself at the bottom of the James is tricky, he said.

“We know when this type of anchor was invented or first introduced, but by the time it gets down to the average vessel out on the road, it might be years or even decades to where smaller merchant vessels could afford an anchor with the new technique,” he said. “So for us, it’s really hard to say exactly 1820s and 1830s, but there’s a good chance it was pre-Civil War.”

Broadwater also knew that the particular stretch of the river near the Rice Rivers Center would have been packed with shipping vessels in the 19th century.

“The James River was where it was happening,” he said. “The Chesapeake Bay, with all its rivers and tributaries, was just loaded with small vessels moving cargo and plying the bay with various kinds of commerce. And the James River was a major part of that.”

There wouldn’t have been many warships anchored in the area of the Rice Rivers Center, he said, but mid-sized coasting schooners plying cargo up and down the river would be typical.

“You could sort of envision a situation where there would be ships trading in anything from grain to lumber to manufactured goods,” Broadwater said. “They were out there by the thousands and thousands. So the percentages are that [this anchor belonged to] one of those vessels, probably a medium-sized vessel. The anchor indicates that it was probably something in the 100-foot-long range maybe.”

Broadwater also helped convene a team of experts to determine how best to conserve the anchor.

“One of the individuals that came out, her expertise is in conservation and she put together sort of a plan for us,” Garman said. “The first thing we need to do is actually make it really wet. We need to wrap it in soaker hoses, but without any possibility of it getting below freezing. Then, after that, it has to dry thoroughly, and then it has to be treated with chemicals to get much of the surface rust off. And then [we’ll apply] primer and then we’ll paint it and set it in that cradle we’ve constructed.”

Rice Rivers Center researchers display baby sturgeon they discovered in the James River.
Rice Rivers Center researchers display baby sturgeon they discovered in the James River last fall. (Photo courtesy of the Rice Rivers Center)

Experiential learning at the Rice Rivers Center


The discovery of the anchor comes as the Rice Rivers Center is planning to offer for the first time several short courses this summer, including one — taught by Broadwater — on field methods in archaeology that will include instruction in underwater archaeology and explore the history of the area around the center.

“We would love to try to fill in some of those gaps in terms of the history of this site. And the anchor is a reminder that the history of this site is tied very much to the James River,” Garman said. “Of all the artifacts that we could have found ourselves in possession of, the anchor is certainly the most appropriate for the Rice Rivers Center because it really ties us back to the history of the river.”

Other short courses, part of what is being called Summer Scholars at Rice, will focus on filmmaking for conservation, field methods in fish biology, wetlands delineation and plant identification.

“These courses will be all hands-on, all experiential, all field-based,” Garman said. “It’s an opportunity for VCU students to come out here and spend a really cool week, and in most cases learn a skill. What I’m trying to do is focus on a skill set that will be marketable either for employment or for going on to graduate school. It won't be heavy on theory. It’ll be heavy on: Let’s get out there and get dirty and learn some skills sets.”

The anchor is a reminder that the history of this site is tied very much to the James River. Of all the artifacts that we could have found ourselves in possession of, the anchor is certainly the most appropriate for the Rice Rivers Center because it really ties us back to the history of the river.

A lucky find


Finding the anchor was not the only bit of luck at the Rice Rivers Center recently.

Balazik and other researchers had conducted trawl surveys in the James River for eight years in hopes of finding Atlantic sturgeon, the once-plentiful ancient fish that was listed as an endangered species by the federal government in 2012.

Over that period, the researchers identified more than 600 different adult sturgeon, along with hundreds of thousands of other fish. However, they never found baby sturgeon and only found two juvenile sturgeon.

Then, last fall, the team — part of the Virginia Sturgeon Restoration Team’s effort to restore the sturgeon within the state’s waters — started finding baby sturgeon in its nets. On one trip, they found 24. By mid-November, they had found 148.

For Balazik, he’s just glad the team’s latest lucky find is out of the river and will be on display for years to come.

“I'm glad it’ll be displayed there and not in the water where it was a possible hazard to navigation and sampling gear,” he said. “I hope people realize there is some cool history in the area.”