Archaeologists say cannon discovered in Cape Fear River could date from the early 1700s; and there may be more out there

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BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Archaeologists in Southeastern North Carolina are still relishing in the mystery of a cannon recovered from the Cape Fear River by a dredging company in December 2016.

After further examination by archaeologists with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources on Wednesday, it turns out the cannon may be from an earlier period than previously thought.

A Colonial-era cannon was discovered in the Cape Fear River during a dredging project. (Photo by Christina Haley.)
A Colonial-era cannon was discovered in the Cape Fear River during a dredging project. (Photo by Christina Haley.)

It was announced Tuesday that a Colonial-era cannon was recovered from the river by a dredging company under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Dec. 21. According to Assistant State Archaeologist Chris Southerly, with the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, the cannon — thought previously to be pre-1756 — could possibly date to the early 1700s.

Southerly said the cannon is very similar to some of the six-pound English guns that were found on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship of the famous pirate Blackbeard, which ran aground in the early 1700s, and was later discovered off the coast of Atlantic Beach in 1996.

“Looking at it, in comparison to some of the other cannons that have been found in this region of North Carolina, specifically with the Queen Anne’s Revenge site — which was early 18th Century, 1718 — this is very similar to several of the English guns that came off of the Queen Anne’s Revenge site, in terms of size and style,” Southerly said.

The cast-iron cannon was recovered near the property boundary between Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson and the Military Ocean Terminal, Sunny Point, according to Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Site Manager Jim McKee. The location is about a mile and a half into the river from the historic site.

The broken end of the cannon's muzzle leaves even more mystery for archaeologists.
The broken end of the cannon’s muzzle leaves even more mystery for archaeologists.

After hundreds of years in river mud, the cannon has developed a thick sediment build up on the outside, which hides any visible markings the cannon may have underneath. However, archaeologists have determined the cannon measures 93-inches long with an 80-inch bore and is 4-inches in diameter, according to McKee. The cannon also has a break at the end of the muzzle, only furthering the mystery of the cannon for archaeologists.

“The break on it … it’s defiantly been broken for a while,” Southerly said. “Beyond that is speculation. It could have … been deposited on the bottom as part of a ship wreck or thrown overboard, whatever the scenario would have been. It could have been hit and sheared off by something. It is also similar to some of the failures that you see on guns of this period when they’re fired. It could have failed during the firing process and cracked.”

The theory is one McKee discussed during an interview with Port City Daily on Tuesday. He hypothesized that the cannon could possibly be from the Spanish Attack on Brunswick Town in 1748.

“You always hope for the good story that goes along with the artifacts and the real historical events,” Southerly said, adding that there could be several running hypothesis of what the cannon could have been or where it may have come from.

“That’s the fun and the aggravating part of working with something like this. You’ve got these great theories. All you’ve got to do, is do the conservation and hope you find the answer,” McKee added. “But a lot of times you won’t find the answer. And a lot of times you won’t find the answer you want. As much as we want that [cannon] to be a failure during battle, it could have been something as easy as it went into the water and later on, a prop hit it and chopped it off.”

But there are possibility more cannons, like this most recent cannon found during dredging effort, lying in the Cape Fear River waiting to be discovered.

The back of the cannon is still in tact. Archaeologists will work to conserve the cannon at the historic site in the eye of the public.
The back of the cannon is still in tact. Archaeologists will work to conserve the cannon at the historic site in the eye of the public.

“Our thought is there may be, there probably is more out there. We do have … some magnetic targets near and around Brunswick Town here and this may have come from one of those,” Southerly said.

The state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch plans to see if archaeologists can manage to get some staff over to the area to check it out or get an archaeological contractor to do a “full remote sensing survey” of the area in the future, Southerly said. Though, funds are limited for such efforts.

“We’re…limited. Anytime we can get a multi-agency collaboration, or a state-federal collaboration, or private-public partnership type of arrangement, it’s a win-win situation for us and ultimately for the public in the end,” Southerly said.

The cannon is still awaiting conservation efforts. A tank for the conservation effort will be at the site in the near future, McKee said. During the process, the conservation can be viewed by the public, which is the first of its kind there at the site. A full restoration of the cannon could take anywhere from 1 to 3 years.

For more information about Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site visit its website or follow the site on Facebook. Visit the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources website to learn more about the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch