The old, worm-eaten timber washed ashore the way most do on Assateague Island. In winter. And after a storm.
A ranger with the Maryland Park Service found the ship timber, still showing markings made by the shipwright who built her, during a daily patrol on Dec. 22. A strong coastal storm delivered its gift practically to the ranger’s doorstep, about 1,000 feet from his station at Assateague State Park, on the sand halfway between a row of dunes and the breaking waves about 10 miles south of Ocean City.
“It is definitely a very cool find for our beach and the interest has been very exciting,” said Angela Baldwin, the manager at the park.
The timber, part of a ship’s hull, became a social media darling, garnering more than 400 likes and 50 reposts on X — a droplet by Taylor Swift standards, but a gusher by state park standards. It was examined, photographed, tagged with QR codes, and left on the shore to remain the wild creature it had become.
The thing about the ocean is that it just as often takes back the gifts it brings. So, after Tuesday’s massive storm, the timber was nowhere to be found.
“It may have been washed out or moved and buried,” Baldwin said. “They are keeping an eye out for it, but it may have returned to the ocean floor.”
Ocean artifacts, it turns out, are fickle friends.
To be clear, the park service did not lose the timber. It simply allowed it and nature to continue their centuries-long arrangement of slowly becoming one with the sea.
Ship timbers are not exactly T. rex skulls – they are routine and unremarkable finds, although the Assateague timber was notable for its size — the length of a car and weighing hundreds of pounds.
Park staff consulted Susan Langley, a state underwater archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust (only nine states have resident underwater archaeologists), who deemed the timber to be interesting, but not significant, and therefore not worth the expense of preservation.
“This happens all the time,” Langley said. “They’re part of the allure of visiting the seashore.”
Nearby, somewhere on the Assateague shore, there are the remains of a British two-masted schooner from the 1820s. Or not. It was there 20 years ago, when scientists uncovered most of the starboard side of its hull. Nature might have dragged it out to sea. Or, more likely, re-buried it in the sand.
Remains of another nearby wreck by the Virginia state line were discovered in the 1980s and haven’t moved much since. The Maryland shore, in other words, is shipwreck city.
Which should not detract from the pre-Christmas discovery. The timber was made of three separate pieces joined together by treenails or trunnels, wooden pegs used as fasteners instead of metal nails. The trunnels were perfectly cylindrical, made on a lathe rather than hewn by hand with a hatchet. That told Langley it was likely constructed in the late 1800s, although lathes have been around since the 1700s.
The specimen, with its telling curve and visible notch where the ship’s keel would have been, came from the bottom of the ship’s hull and was one of the frame timbers or ribs of the ship, Langley explained. It suggested the ship’s beam, or width, was 14 feet. The timber was meticulously crafted from oak, the most common shipbuilding material of its time, so it’s unclear where it was made. (Hickory, a more unusual material, would suggest it was made in New England at the turn of the 20th century.) Shipworms have since made a buffet of it. They are the bane of underwater archaeologists, whose artifacts are the worms’ food.
“That ship broke up right from the very bottom,” Langley said.
It’s also possible the ship was scuttled and salvaged, and this was one of the fragments left behind.
The random timber contained no identifying markings to indicate its provenance or ownership, so as long as it remains in Maryland waters or on state park land, it is technically property of the state. At least until it washes up in Virginia, or North Carolina, which would require another very strong and vigorous storm. Left in the ocean, a timber of that size does not present a navigational hazard to vessels, Baldwin said.
“Pieces like this are very heavy and dense and tend to stay deep and typically end up on the bottom where they may again be covered and remain for long periods of time,” she explained. “They typically are not found bobbing in the waters, and boaters are typically not present during larger scale storms when the piece would end up being moved, so it is unlikely to become a hazard.”
If money and time were no object, Langley would save and preserve everything that washed ashore.
“They’re all my babies,” she said.
But time is an object, especially for her. In a few years, she hopes to retire.
Money is an even bigger object.
The timber would first have to be lifted, likely by a backhoe, transported by truck to a lab in Southern Maryland, where a very large tank would have to be procured to submerge and desalinate the wood. That takes months and constant changes of water. Once all the salt has been leached out, the specimen would have to be impregnated with a stabilizing compound like polyethylene glycol, used as a preservative in industrial applications and as a laxative in medical ones. The stabilizer cannot just be dumped in; it has to be carefully dosed.
Once that has been done, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, a museum or benefactor has to be willing to keep it. The number of willing volunteers for that is exactly zero, Langley said, so back to the ocean it goes. Just the cost of transportation and preservation far exceeds the annual budget of Langley’s department.
The next best option is the one used by Ranger Will Steckman. Equipped with one of Langley’s tagging kits, he attached two QR codes to the timber so that if it is ever found again, and the codes scanned, a story will be told, albeit a simple one. They are a bit like messages in bottles, reliant on happenstance and discovery. The codes will indicate when it was last found, and where it has since traveled — most Atlantic debris tends to move southward, carried by the countercurrent of the Gulf Stream.
The kits are part of the state’s Shipwreck Tagging Archaeological Management Program or STAMP and are available to anyone wishing to make a day out of shipwreck spotting. Here is Langley’s pitch for making shipwreck spotting your new hobby:
“If you don’t want to birdwatch — if you’re like me, you see one bird and you’re ready for a nap — so if you come out to the park and you’re not into birds, and it’s too cold to swim, and by the way, you know there are sharks out there, and maybe you like flying kites, but sometimes you want to do something more challenging …”
The kits contain a form to fill out, pencils, scales, a tape measure, gloves, and the all-important tags that are handmade by Langley herself out of waterproof paper sandwiched between two pieces of clear Plexiglass and chemically bonded together as to never come apart. Instructions come with the kit.
Citizen archaeologists must have smartphones to determine GPS coordinates. The tags are about the size of recipe cards (for those who remember what those are), attached with two stainless steel washers and nails, hammered into the specimen through predrilled holes. Hammers are included.
“In a perfect world, we’d use screws,” Langley said, “but we didn’t want to make it too complicated. It’s citizen science. We want it to be fun and engaging.”
The tagging program is modest but growing. Virginia has a similar program. Interest has been expressed by those in other Atlantic states. The data gathered so far is in its “infancy,” Langley said.
Spring is a hospitable time for shipwreck spotting, when the air warms and the surf recedes. But the time for discovering debris is now.
Hours after Langley was told the ship timber had disappeared, she received another excited message from the ranger station. Another large timber had washed up on the beach Thursday. The sender excitedly asked, could this one be from the same wreck?