Written by Charles R. Ewen, coeditor of Pieces of Eight: More Archaeology of Piracy

The idea behind our previous book, X Marks the Spot, was “how can you tell a pirate from an ordinary sailor?”  Pirates are easy to spot in the movies.  They have patches, hooks, peglegs, and parrots—or some combination thereof.  This imagery can be traced to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 classic Treasure Island. Add the compelling artwork of Howard Pyle and you have the “pirate” that we all grew up with.  Did pirates actually look like that?  Probably some did, but then again, so did many honest sailors.  So when archaeologists are digging up a shipwreck, how do they know if it belonged to pirates? The only way to solve this riddle is to investigate sites that are known to have been associated with pirates, based on historical evidence. The quest to find real pirates continues in our second volume, Pieces of Eight.

Though we use historical evidence, our latest book is not a history of piracy.  It is more of an anthropology of piracy.  The archaeologists featured in this volume study piracy based on what the pirates left behind and link those artifacts to past behaviors.  You might think of the cases in our books as episodes in the series CSI: Tortuga with archaeologists poring over the material evidence to find out about pirate ships and the pirates who sailed them.

Recording broken swivel gun on Dunworley Bay wreck site prior to recovery for conservation.

One pirate myth that will not go away, and has inspired hundreds of people to set off on their own adventures, is the hunt for buried treasure. Many people think the world is dotted with pirate caches which are waiting to be found.  But are they? Historical evidence tells us that only one pirate, Captain William Kidd, is alleged to have buried treasure.  It was supposedly buried on Gardiner’s Island, off Long Island, NY, and it was allegedly retrieved shortly thereafter by his captor, Lord Bellomont. This one incident has somehow inspired generations of pirate buffs to hunt for Kidd’s not-so-lost treasure on Gardiner’s Island and also on Oak Island, Nova Scotia.  The reality series The Curse of Oak Island is entering its fourth season and the supposed buried booty has expanded beyond Kidd’s loot to include the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.  No treasure yet, but they are sooo close!  Again, there is no historical documentation for any buried pirate treasure still out there, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping anybody. Especially the professional treasure hunter.  These folks make their living off of people investing in the myth of buried treasure rather than the realities of the archaeological record.

Pirate Archaeology

Collaborating with treasure hunters is something that most archaeologists avoid.  Many view the word “collaboration” with the same disdain that some politicians regard the word “compromise.”  To compromise is to sell out your ethics, some politicians believe, and many archaeologists feel the same way about collaborating with treasure hunters.  “But how can this be?” you might ask.  Aren’t archaeologists and treasure hunters both after the same thing?  Not necessarily.  The treasure hunter is in business to find things. The archaeologist’s job is to find things out.

Figure 27
A swivel gun.

Most archaeologists see treasure hunters not as allies in the quest to interpret the past and preserve it for the future, but ironically as pirates themselves, who profit from the salvaging of artifacts—thus depriving the general public of the stories they can tell.  The data—in this case, treasure—is removed from circulation, often by methods that damage the rest of the site, thus taking away information about the historical pirates.  To add insult to injury, the treasure is then sold back to the public without its complete, true story.

The Archaeology of Piracy

Fortunately, the data in our books are intact, enabling archaeologists to get at the information about piracy.  Even so, our chapters show how hard it is to identify and learn about a pirate site without both archaeology and historical evidence.  As data from genuine pirate sites accumulates, researchers can delve more deeply into what it really meant to be a pirate.

Figure 2
Queen Anne’s Revenge sword handle after recovery.

It is becoming apparent that the lives of most pirates were not as Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts supposedly said, “short but merry.” While their lives were usually short, it is more likely that they were as miserable as the modern day pirates that plague the coast of Somalia, who live in abject poverty and see raiding commercial shipping as their only alternative.  Some historical pirates did live up to Robert Louis Stevenson’s stereotype but in reality most passed a brief, bleak, and brutal existence.  They probably didn’t have enough time to fully develop a pirate culture that can be clearly recognized in the archaeological record.  Pieces of Eight, then, shows piracy in its many different forms though time and around the world.  We invite you to draw your own conclusions about how close your childhood pictures of pirates match the historical reality.




Charles R. Ewen is coeditor of Pieces of Eight: More Archaeology of Piracy with Russell K. Skowronek. He is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at East Carolina University as well as director of the Phelps Archaeology Laboratory. He is the former president of the Society for Historical Archaeology. His other books include X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, which he also edited with Russell K. Skowronek.

Pieces of Eight coeditors Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s