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Dead Man’s Chest: Exploring the Archaeology of Piracy

17 Nov 23

274 pages

Robert Muddysley

It is difficult to see how archaeology can be specifically related to piracy; the ships were the same, the people were often the same, often switching between being ‘honest’ merchants, privateers and outright pirates. However, this is the third book editors of this volume have jointly published on the archaeology of piracy. They are both professors of anthropology, but at widely separated (US) universities. This is a very specialist book, as the editors acknowledge, the archaeology of piracy is regarded as a niche within the field.

Unusually for multiple author books, often encountered as conference proceedings, this book reads consistently well; a tribute to the editors. As with an academic conference, the book is divided into sections by various topics, and the individual chapters within each are very varied by topic and content.

Apart from a couple of ships definitively identified as being pirate vessels, including that of the famous Captain Kidd, most of the archaeology is of land sites. Some are well known: Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel was a pirate refuge and base; some like the ‘King Of Lundy’, one Captain Salkeld, settled for a longer period; whereas some like the barbary pirates used it as a short term base. The point is well made that the Lundy pirates “were not the swashbucklers portrayed in modern culture. Instead, they were murderers, thieves, and slavers”.

Even when, as in the case of the Isle of Lundy, there is a definite link to pirates and piracy, it is often impossible to distinguish objects used by pirates from other material encountered in excavations, but some comparisons are possible. Historical records show that the New England fishing community of Pemaquid (the site of the present-day Bristol) was law abiding, and indeed was itself the subject of pirate depredations, whereas the community on the Isle of Shoals centred on the gloriously named Smuttynose Island, while still a fishing community, had a less law-abiding reputation. Excavations of the sites of taverns at the two sites shows markedly different artefacts. Pemaquid was obviously less wealthy, whereas the Smuttynose tavern and adjacent domestic areas revealed a wide variety of ceramic remains from around the world, suggesting a more cosmopolitan population, presumptively pirates.

A few wrecked ships, which from historical records were pirate or privateer vessels, (for many periods of history, the line between pirates and privateers was blurred to say the least) have been excavated and have revealed some indications of size, and likely origins. Using contemporary records of building practices, surprisingly detailed conclusions about the size and origin of vessels can be made, in one case from the surviving rudder. One ‘possible’ pirate wreck in Bermuda was constructed of greenheart, a South American timber which is very resistant to rot, allowing quite detailed examination of a vessel which may well have been intentionally wrecked.

This is an academic book, written for academics. Only an academic could write at the end of an involved chapter looking at pirates and archaeology in video games “we hope that developers [of games] will continue to rely on facts rather than on Hollywood’s perception of pirates”.

One of the ‘blurbs’ on the back cover states “should be on the bookshelf of every maritime and historical archaeologist”, but, regrettably, it is not likely to be on anybody else’s.