Posts Tagged ‘Griffon’

The Griffon hunt heats up: First a “bowsprit” and now a debris field–has Griffon been found at last?

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 24 2014

Last summer, I covered the search for “Le Griffon” (or le Grifon, Griffen, Griffin, non-standard spellings of the 17th century are so much fun) in Lake Michigan.

The Griffon is the holy grail of Great Lakes Shipwrecks.  While it’s highly unlikely that it’s the oldest shipwreck out there (there have to be some native vessels like canoes resting down there too, after all) it’s the oldest named boat known to be in the Upper Great Lakes, and even more interestingly, it is the first ship built by Europeans on the Great Lakes using native timbers.  Her discovery, if confirmed, could shed light on the very earliest shipbuilding in the New World, and even more interestingly, a ship built on temporary shipyards constructed because no one could get around Niagara Falls!  (The “shipyard” was destroyed shortly thereafter.)

Back in 2001, Steven Libert found a timber jutting out of the sandy Lake Michigan bed, one that was obviously squared off with wooden pegs embedded within it. He believed that it was a portion of the Griffon, hopefully, the bowsprit or the mast and the rest of her was buried beneath.

But the archaeological laws in Michigan are complex.  The shipwreck barely lies within the Michigan property lines that run through Lake Michigan.  The Michigan laws state that all archaeological finds beneath Lake Michigan belong to the state itself.  This is in part to prevent salvage or destruction or theft before scientific study.

The side effect, however, is that discoverers, like Libert, can often be pushed out of any subsequent explorations, and he wasn’t about to let that happen. In a twelve-year-long negotiation, Libert kept the location of the suspected “Griffon” a secret while he negotiated with the state to be part of the exploration.

But, in another twist, the French government, claiming that the Griffon, or any remains thereof, having been built by a Frenchman in French-claimed territory at that time, belongs to France.  It lead to an international exploration last summer.

The French archaeologists on the exploration declared that the exposed beam shared many characteristics with French bowsprits from the late 17th century.

But the Griffon was not beneath the “bowsprit”.  After digging around the base, the bowsprit came free, revealing nothing but sand and bedrock below.  It was a disappointment, and a huge question: where was the Griffon? IF this “bowsprit” was her, where was the rest of her?  If it wasn’t the Griffon, and the initial core tests which indicated it was from the late 17th century were accurate, what on earth was this thing?

As the permitted time to explore closed, the “bowsprit” was taken to Michigan State University for further tests, the results to be shared with the state archaeologists and the French team.

Samples were sent to be carbon-14 dated in Florida, and a CT scan in a Gaylord Hospital allowed for tree ring analysis without having to take a sample and thus potentially destroy some other evidence.

The “bowsprit” inside the CT scanner from Ostego Memorial Hospital in Gaylor MI. “Please hold your breath and remain as still as possible” Betcha that was easy this time around.

Nothing came back definitive, but at the same time, nothing came back excluding the “bowsprit” from potentially belonging to the “Griffon”  That is to say, the carbon dating suggests that the beam could be as old as the Griffon is supposed to be [1](the most recent carbon-14 test suggests the tree was cut down between 1680 and 1740, well within the margin of error for a 1679 “Le Griffon”) but in order to exclude a more modern date, different tests will be needed.

And there were 29  clear tree rings documented in the CT scan done by Otsego Memorial Hospital’s CT scanner. These were sent to Cornell University so Carol Griggs, an expert at the Tree Ring Laboratory at Cornell, can compare it to other trees of the same location and time period in Cornell’s database.  The hope was she could match these tree rings to another tree of the same region and species to “date” the bowsprit to a specific time period.  But in the end, she concluded at least 50 tree rings are needed to make a definitive match to a specific time period, so this test, too, fell through.

So nothing has yet said, “Nope—this is too young to be part of the Griffon”, which really, is the best you can hope for at this point. Of course, nothing has definitively said, “Yes this IS the Griffon!” either. What role this “bowsprit” will play in history’s future depends on what happens next.

Is it the Griffon?  There are now two camps about that.

In the “yes/it’s possible” camp are Steve Libert, its discoverer,  and the three French archaeologists headed by Michel L’Hour, director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research,  who joined the expedition last year.

Evidence that this is the Griffon’s bowsprit includes the beam’s general length and width, and shape of the buried end of the post.

Keep in mind, wood does not rot in the same manner in Lake Michigan as it does in the salt water of the oceans.  The cool water of the Lake keep wood in better condition for much longer.  While 19th century wooden shipwrecks are often mostly disintegrated by the 21st century, in Lake Michigan they are mostly intact.

So the buried end of the “bowsprit” shows signs of being beveled to an edge, but not sharpened to a point.  Buried as it was, this beveled edge is most likely deliberate, and original to the “bowsprit”.

A photo from the French Ministry of Culture showing the beveled, buried, end of the “bowsprit”. From this article.

 

This beveling on the end is consistent with how bowsprits were shaped to be fitted to the ship itself.  The other end, with the two man-made holes and pegs could be the attachement the “elbow” used to belong to, which would then attach to the flagpole.  This type of bowsprit is at least consistent with the “La Belle”, built by La Salle five years after “Le Griffon”.

 

 

Among the individuals in the “no” camp is state archaeologist, Dean Anderson, and two scientists who were on the 2013 expedition: Misty Jackson and Ken Vrana.  They believe that the “bowsprit” is most likely a stake from a “pound stake net”.

What’s a “Pound Stake Net”?

A pound stake net is a net strung among a number of submerged, vertical stakes pounded into the sandy Lake Michigan bed 35 or more feet below the surface.  Shaped like nested hearts, or hearts in bowls, these nets allowed large schools of fish to swim inside in large numbers, but few could find the way out.

 

https://i2.wp.com/www.photolib.noaa.gov/bigs/figb0153.jpg?resize=598%2C383

These diagrams of Atlantic Pound Stake Net designs show how such things worked. Schools of fish could easily enter the large opening of the “Heart” end of the nets, but them swim through the small opening at the end of the heart into the “bowl” where they would be unable to find their way out again. From here, it’s easy to retrieve your catch. The locations of the poles are also easily seen on the left and center diagrams. If the “bowsprit” really is a pole from this method of fishing, others may be nearby, or records of recovered poles may exist. Diagram from NOAA.  Click to see larger resolution.

 

A diagram from this article which better shows how a pound stake net works, and what it looks like from the surface. http://www.chesapeakeboating.net/Media/Feature-Stories/What-Lies-Beneath.aspx

 

These nets were so successful at capturing fish that whole populations of fish, especially the prized lake Whitefish, disappeared in the Green Bay region, where the “bowsprit” was recovered.

During the summer 2013 expedition, no one mentioned the Pound Stake Theory, because none of these recovered stakes had the type of cross-way pins that the “bowsprit” did.

But a modern fisherman, Bob Ruleau of Wisconsin, submitted a photograph of a pound stake his nets had recovered years earlier.  His recovered artifact revealed that pound stakes had, at times, been spliced together using cross-wise pins. (see the photo here)

Moreover, each pound stake was pounded in deeply once, using a pole driver, a method that would lead to a single erosion ring right at the surface of the lake bed.

https://i1.wp.com/www.photolib.noaa.gov/bigs/figb0174.jpg?resize=601%2C383

A Pole driving boat in Lake Erie. According to the caption, this boat would both drive the stakes, using a pile-driver set up, and remove them at the end of the season. Makes sense in a way–winter is brutal on such semi-submerged objects, so may as well remove them, and reuse the following season. Photo from NOAA

Photograph supplied by Bob Ruleau who also supplied documentation on the splicing of the pound stakes, this photo more clearly shows how the floating pile driver would pound the stakes in. You can also see the stakes also protrude from the water by about 5 feet. If the “bowsprit” is one of these stakes, it must have broken off some time ago.

The “bowsprit” has this type of fairly clean erosion line, leading many to believe that whenever and however the “bowsprit” was driven into the lake bed, it was driven extremely forcefully.  How could the ship-side end of the bowsprit be driven so forcefully that there is only one clear cut erosion line, but no remains of the ship?

The erosion line on the “bowsprit”. Photo taken by Laura Herberg from IPR for this article

Is it possible that the “bowsprit” broke off, and embedded itself in a small amount of sand, and thus created a catalyst for a dune to form around it within afew days?  The storm that sank the Griffon was four days long, and very violent, so such a thing would be possible.

Or is is a partially spliced pound stake left over from 19th century fishermen looking to make a large catch?

Only one way to find out.

Libert went back to the site and began to search around. Now, he’s announced that there is a large field of debris about 120 feet (36 meters) south-west from the original “bowsprit”, and hopes to gain the archaeology permits in time for another exploratory excavation in September of this year.

While the new “debris field” has yet to yield any definitive artifacts like cannon marked with the correct French seals, it does, apparently, have a partial ship’s pow, several kinds of nails and hand hewn boards.  The nails within the debris field are consistent with a known La Salle shipwreck from the Gulf of Mexico, the “La Belle”.  If this is the case, it’s a circumstantial point to this “debris field” potentially being the Griffon.

If all goes well, this fall could be a very exciting year for Michigan archaeology!

Maybe I should do an entry on the “La Belle” and how what we’ve learned about her by studying her shipwreck could impact the search for the Griffon.

 

More information:

Bowsprit or Pound Stake Net remains?

Wooden Beam Gets CT Scan (This article supplies great photos of the “bowsprit” in the CT machine–really gives nice views of the formerly exposed end with the cross pins and holes)

Article about the new debris field from MLive, the Michigan digital paper cooperation.  They follow this story closely

 Daily Mail’s article about the new debris field; great photos


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

And now for something completely different... | 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

Has La Salle’s Legendary Griffon been found?

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 18 2013

One of the most unique shipwrecks in the world may be on the verge of coming to light.  And being a native Michigander some four generations back, I’ve always heard about “The Griffin” and her wreck.  Part legend, part haunted ship (she’s the “Flying Dutchman” of the Great Lakes by some sources), part wild goose chase, it now appears there may be an end to her story.

In 1679, the Great Lakes region looked much different.  The area was known as “New France” or “Louisiana”.  French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was sent by King Louis XVI to explore the New World and formally claim part of it for France.  He’d been doing this for a number of years, exploring parts of modern New York, Michigan, and possibly down as far as Kentucky.

Satellite view of the Great Lakes Region as it appears today. The Great Lakes region, or Louisiana, part of New France, as it was called them, would appear very different. It was under these raw conditions that the first cobbled-together shipyard would produce “The Griffin” the first European decked, sailing ship to appear on the upper Great Lakes.

Of course, the native peoples of the Great Lakes region were welcoming of Europeans as long as there were few of them and they were eager traders, but as more colonists came desiring land, things got a little more uneasy.  Some tribes were welcoming and some were openly hostile, yet others allied with other tribes against the Europeans or with the Europeans against their own enemies. (Of course, individuals have unique agendas, further blurring these lines.)

Setting out to map the Great Lakes, and discover if the rumored Ohio River did lead to the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, de la Salle took a ship up Lake Ontario, but was stopped by a little obstruction called Niagara Falls, and had to figure out what to do next.  He couldn’t go around Lake Erie, as the local peoples, the Seneca nation, did not want him in their territory, so he had to continue on ship…and the only one he had was stuck at the base of the falls.

He had two choices, use the large canoes used by the native peoples of the Great Lakes, or build a new, European style ship.  Guess which one he went with?

Named “Le Grifon” or “The Griffin”, this ship, only about as long as one of those canoes, but much higher and more heavily armed, was built between January and June 1679.  But think for a second: the Griffin’s men first had to build their own lodgings, and guard against attacks from the Seneca and Iroquois, who did not approve of this new ship.  They had to fell great, virgin trees, likely hundreds of years old, cut them to length and width, plane them down, shape them, and set them in the ship on-site, while a blacksmith would first have to build a forge, then create all of the metal fastenings to hold Griffin together.

Thankfully,  de la Salle had a priest along on this expedition, a Louis Hennepin, who chronicled the entire journey, including Griffin’s short life.  It’s his writings that give us the clearest and one of the only first-person accounts of the build to loss of this unique ship.  He records that one master carpenter, one blacksmith, and ten other workmen built the Griffon in five months (January – May 1679).  The only pre-made items for her construction were the cannons, guns, rigging, chains, sails and anchor.  She had a griffon on her bowsprit, and an eagle carving as well.

Griffin’s possible appearances based on Hennepin’s period descriptions, other French ships of the time, and the research of Dr. George Quimby, Field Museum curator. Only finding the wreck will prove which, or any, of these designs are accurate.

 

The map below shows where Griffin’s only voyage went.  All things considered, she was very fast for her time.

 

Griffon’s Voyage, based on Quimby’s research and Hennepin’s accounts. Click on the map for a larger image. To read the Griffon’s account in Quimby’s book for yourself, go here:  (Link on the right).

In September, De la Salle, wanting to continue down Lake Michigan and find a river that could lead to the Gulf, but also needing to return to settle debts and acquire more supplies, decided to divide and conquer.  The priest Hennepin wrote what happened next:

“M[onsieur] la Salle, without asking anybody’s Advice, resolv’d to send back his Ship to Niagara, laden with Furrs [sic] and Skins to discharge he Debts: our Pilot [Luc the Dane, by all accounts] and five Men with him were therefore sent back, and ordere’d to return with all imaginable speed, to join us toward the Southern Parts of the Lake…They wailed the 18th of September with a Westerly Wind, and fir’d a Gun [cannon] to take their leave. ..it was never known what Course they steer’d, not how they perished; for after all the Enquiries we have been able to make, we could never learn anything else but the following…

The ship came to an Anchor to the North of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan] where she was seen by some Savages, who told us that they advised our Men to sail along the Coast, and not towards the middle of the Lake, because the sands [shoals, bars, islands] that make navigation dangerous when there is any high Wind.  Our Pilot as I said before, was dissatisfy’d and would steer as he pleas’d, without hearkening to the Advice of the Savages, who, generally speaking, have more sense than the Europeans think at first; the ship as hardly more than a League from the Coast, when it was toss’d up by a violent Storm in such a manner that out Men were never heard of since and it is suppos’d that the Ship struck upon a Sand as was there bury’d.”

The Griffin was never seen again.  De la Salle later heard some rumors that the pilot, Luc the Dane, and his men had scuttled the Griffin, and made off with his supply of furs worth £49,830 (in 2005 values) or $90,689.73 (2005 values)[1].  Another rumor that floated around was the local peoples had boarded the Griffin, then burned her to the waterline, where she sank.  Of course, the most common conclusion was the Griffin had sunk the four-day storm that Hennepin noted in his diary from September 19 to September 24, 1679.

The only European built ship in the Upper Great Lakes for nearly another hundred years, the Griffin is unique for several reasons: she’s the first European style ship built on the Great Lakes, using mostly native materials.  She may have utilized unique construction techniques due to this construction.  She’s from a time period that few examples survive, even few accurate plans.  As a wreck, she would be a time capsule, allowing an unpolluted view into this elusive time period of North American history, when the lines between the native peoples and the European settlers was constantly shifting, the concept of the USA and Canada was not yet born, when a French Flag flew over most of modern New York, Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and the whole place was called “Louisiana” (And now you know where the name “Louisiana Purchase” officially originated.)  But most important, she seems to have sunk in a relatively deep, cold place in Lake Michigan, and possibly was completely covered in sand.

Why is that important?  Because unlike the ocean, where wooden ships quickly rot away, leaving their outlines in weaponry, metal fastenings and other stable cargo, wooden shipwrecks of the Great Lakes can remain whole for decades, if not centuries.  Many 19th century shipwrecks in Lake Michigan and Huron still bear their riggings, and hold cargo in perfect condition.  The Griffin, if found, even raised, could change our concepts of this time, much as the Mary Rose did Tudor England, or the Vasa about 17th century Sweden.

To give an idea of the excellent condition the Griffin could be found in, if she reached the bottom relatively intact, check out this video of the HMS Ontario, which sank in Lake Erie in 1780, during the Revolutionary War, or the American War of Independence.  Outside of some zebra mussels, she’s in such perfect condition, her discoverers said even two windows are still intact.

Or look at these 3D  models of shipwrecks from Thunder Bay, most of which sank in the 19th century.  Many of them look as though they sank a short while ago, still standing some with masts and some rigging intact.

The Griffin could indeed tell us much of the earliest written history of the Great Lakes.  But if the site that’s been investigated now is Griffon, who owns her and what happens next?  Heck, her discovery is a story in and of itself.

That’s another post.

For More Information:

 

This movie was put out by the Great Lakes Expedition team which is heading the Griffin expedition:

And this one is a highlight reel of the excavations taking place this summer (June 2013) Apparently, this spar of “the Griffin” was 10 feet, and they’ve excavated another 8 feet down to find, more spar! If this is the Griffin, I’m wondering if it’s the mast, not the bowsprit as previously thought, but then again, I’m not on site, and 17th century sailing vessels aren’t my specialty!

Great Article on the Griffon’s possible wreck, including photos and film footage of the bowsprit/mast spar:

Information Provided by the Great Lakes Exploration Group, who are leading the exploration of the wreck

 More information about the shipwreck and the progress of the preliminary dig taking place this summer (2013)

 

 


[1] Calculations based on “Money and Exchange Rates in 1632” by Francis Turner; “Currency Converter: old Money to new” from the British National Archives online: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/default0.asp#mid; and X[change] Rates: Great Britain Pound to US Dollar 2005 Exchange Rates: http://www.x-rates.com/average/?from=GBP&to=USD&amount=49830&year=2005