Developments in the Griffon Dig, the ‘Bowsprit’ came down…

Posted by Rebekah
Jun 19 2013

Update: Wednesday, June 19, 2013.  With the initial excavation permit (the first underwater permit in Michigan’s history!) due to expire on Friday, and the French archaeologists scheduled to leave the USA shortly thereafter, time is running out at the Griffon site.

A map showing Griffin’s last days in the blue (any route taken by Griffin is pure speculation, though the dates of her ports of call were recorded by Hennepin.As before, click image of larger image.

Initially, the sonar scans done last year suggested a large object, around 40-45 feet long, consistent with the Griffon’s descriptions, was buried only about 2 feet below the surface.  So this week’s excavations have involved dredging around the alleged bowsprit sticking out of the mud, hopefully uncovering the deck of the Griffon.  Unfortunately, what they found first was a near impenetrable layer of quagga mussels, and what the Sonar was picking up earlier seems to be much, much, much, further down. At least another 8-10 feet, if not further.  The extra depth forced the Griffon Excavation Team to bring in new excavation equipment that could handle this new depth.

Then, Tuesday night, as they were working near the “Bowsprit”, it suddenly began to wobble.  Divers realized that if it had once been connected, it wasn’t any longer, just deeply stuck in the mud.  Archaeologists decided to lower it to the lake bed, before it became a safety hazard.  So now we have a nearly twenty-foot long…something.

This is both good and bad news.  The bad news, obviously, is we’re still no officially closer to the Griffon if they’re excavating the right spot.  The good news, however, is multi-fold.

  • With the “bowsprit” down, they can now start excavating wider and with…well, one hates to say “with less care” but they certainly can explore a wider area faster than when they were concerned about the “bowsprit” and its stability.
  • The “Bowsprit” is now eligible to return to the surface and be fully examined.  This will include some really extensive conservation, but would allow it to be examined in controlled conditions.
  • The “Bowsprit” has been examined underwater by French archaeologists, who are convinced that it came from ship, and it a bowsprit, though the top, exposed ten feet are eroded from three centuries of sand and water (ya think?).  And therefore, SOMETHING interesting is in the area.  If she sank in a storm, the Griffon could have broken up, leaving this “bowsprit” where it is, and other items in the area.  Even broken up, she would still be archaeologically very valuable

The Bowsprit is the long, needle-like projection that extends from many (but not all) sailing ships’ bows. Of the four drawings of the Griffon done by Dr. George Quimby based on contemporary descriptions, this is the only one that shows any bowsprit at all, surprisingly. If the Griffon is only 45 feet in length as most scholars believe, I have a hard time believing her bowsprit is nearly half that length, but then again, 17th century sailing ships are not my specialty.

Now, the sand they’re sucking up is being sucked to the fishing vessel “Viking” which is the home base for this expedition.  The sand is filtered and checked, before being put back in the Lake.  This far, one or possibly two artifacts have come to light: a “cultural artifact”, with no further description, and a 15-inch long slab of blackened wood that shows signs of hand shaping.  These artifacts, could, of course, be one and the same.

Ideally, what they’re looking for is a French artifact from the 17th century, which could definitively prove that this place is the site of the Griffon, warranting a larger excavation this year, or a return next.  The perfect artifact would be one of Griffon’s guns, as these would be emblazoned with the arms of Louis XIV, proving beyond doubt that the Griffon settled near here.

Three days down, two to go, and of course, what happened today is not yet known—that’ll hit the papers tomorrow.

What happens to the bowsprit now?  Who knows?  There are two real options: leaving it near the site, and bringing it to the surface.

The exact site of “the Griffon” is a closely guarded secret (in fact, the discoverer, Steve Libert sat on that piece of information for nearly a decade as the rights to this expedition were dragged through court after court after embassy, after court as his trump card. ), but the general location is known.  To prevent theft or vandalism, the “bowsprit” may be buried nearby, and they’ll hopefully return next year.

Or, they could bring the Bowsprit to the surface and return with it to shore.  The problem here is that wood is full of natural oils. What does oil do in water?  Float to the surface.  Carbon-dating tests and archaeological surveys already suggest that that “bowsprit” is centuries old whatever it is and wherever it comes from, and over the hundreds of years, most of the oil in the original wood will have seeped out, up and away.

If it’s brought to the surface and allowed to dry out, the wood will essentially crumble to dust.  Another 17th century shipwreck, the Swedish Vasa, had to be kept damp until it can be sprayed with polyethylene glycol, which filled and the spaces the oil used to and stabilized the water-logged wood.  The Vasa had to be sprayed for seventeen years and dried for nine to allow for full penetration and stabilization, while the Mary Rose was sprayed for sixteen, and is currently drying (the earliest it will be considered “conserved” and ready for visitors will be 2015.).  Being one piece of wood, of course, the process for the “bowsprit” here will be faster, but it’s a long journey from the Lake to the nearest place that would be equipped to do that sort of work, and it would have to be kept wet and stable the whole time.

The Mary Rose undergoing the glycol treatment. If the bowsprit is brought to the surface, it’ll undergo something like this–though obviously, not at this scale! Image from Wikipedia.

The other good news, is the mud surrounding the “wreck” appears to be thick and possibly anaerobic, meaning no oxygen penetrates and therefore, anything that could eat the wreck can’t do anything.  She could possibly be whole down there…I’d say that’s asking too much, but the name Richard III rolls around in my head and reminds me that, yes, every so often, you can strike the Archaeological equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But as I was thinking about the bowsprit, it got me to think about some possibilities about the wreck:

If that is the bowsprit, the wreck, if the bowsprit didn’t break at the beginning, could be tilted as much as this. Still, the final dimensions of that “bowsprit” are close to 20 feet, and again, a bowsprit that’s half the length of her ship seems very unusual to me.

 

A set up like this, where the “bowsprit” is actually part of the main or other mast makes a little more sense to my point of view. It at least would explain why the original staff was between 10 and 11 feet high and the hole was reportedly around 8 feet deep when it started to tumble, but sensors indicate the ship, if she’s there, is still several feet further down. It would also explain why we haven’t come across many artifacts yet.

 

Or even this idea. The top right sketch of Quimby’s Griffon drawings shows no bowsprit at all, but a main mast that appears to be two masts joined roughly half-way to two-thirds the way up. If this upper portion came loose and that’s what has just been excavated, (The “mast” to the right would indicate its original position)  that would also account for why no ship was attached to the lower end of the spar, and why sensors show a mass of something several feet down. Of course, there are any number of other possibilities: she could be broken up, she could be on her side, she could be scattered everywhere. Still, it’s fun to wonder…

 

Some of the best from today’s articles:

The Associated Press Article about the mast separating

One of the more detailed articles I found researching today

Another article about the bowsprit coming loose

Grand Haven Tribune article with a map of the area on which I based the one above

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