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2008 Papahanaumokuakea Maritime Heritage Expedition
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Mission Blog: August 20, 2008
Preliminary Analysis of the Pearl and Hermes Sites

By Hans Van Tilburg, Historian and Maritime Archaeologist
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Pacific Islands Region

The straight flukes of a British anchor circa 1800, like an arrow on the sea bed.

The straight flukes of a British anchor circa 1800, like an arrow on the sea bed. Click image for larger view. (Photo: NOAA ONMS)

On our transit south to French Frigate Shoals the expedition blog entries are discussing preliminary site interpretation for four of the shipwrecks we have been studying over the past weeks.  With this second installment, we examine the whaling ships Pearl and Hermes the namesake of Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

In 2004, NOAA divers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands came across two whaling vessel wreck sites at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.  Four years later, and following the completion of the 2006 survey of the nearby Pearl shipwreck, maritime archaeologists finally had the chance and the requisite good weather to map Pearl’s consort, the British whaler Hermes, lost on the same night in 1822.  The types of artifacts, their position at the atoll, and the first-hand description of the event from the Hermes’s carpenter James Robinson, provide strong circumstantial evidence for the identification of both of these sites.  Today the team met again to discuss preliminary ideas about the Hermes wreck site. 

The two iron anchors of the Hermes are the most diagnostic artifacts visible.  Their straight flukes, ending in a sharp angle at the crown, are typical of English “old plan long-shanked” anchors circa 1800 (length 339 cm and 340 cm).  The large blubber hook and trypots (one whole, open diameter 100cm and height 70cm--others broken into pieces) and scatter of bricks are indications of a whaling vessel.  The Hermes site features four heavily encrusted trunnioned cannon (two length 195 cm, two length 122 cm) to the Pearl’s two.  There are numerous cannonballs (at least 33) and musket balls as well, the cannonballs appear arranged in linear racks.  Were these cannon and cannonballs stowed below or on deck ready to use?  The most notable features on the wreck site are the approximately 150 pig-iron ballast pieces, many a seemingly standardized 60-65 cm X 15 cm.  The function of the large semi-circular lead “ingot” (26 cm X 35 cm), first seen in 2004, remains a mystery. 

The straight flukes of a British anchor circa 1800, like an arrow on the sea bed.

Cannonballs near two of the cannon on the site, grown onto the coral substrate, arranged in a rough line. (Photo: NOAA ONMS)

The character of the Hermes site, only about 400 meters to the west of the Pearl, differs considerably from her consort’s remains in both the distribution of the artifacts and in their state of deterioration.  Whereas the features and artifacts of the Pearl lie in close proximity (site length roughly corresponding to the estimated length of the ship…anchors near the bow and ballast and gudgeon towards midships and stern), the Hermes site is a seemingly formless scatter area.  The 327-ton Pearl grounded into a sandy coral groove, pressing its wooden keel into the sediment, while the smaller 258-ton Hermes hit the hard sea bed and spilled its ballast into several adjacent shallow crevices.  The Hermes’s trypots, anchors, lead ingot, and blubber hook, etc. are scattered at a considerable distance from one another, over an extremely rough coral substrate.  Here, the force of the ocean and the nature of the sea floor seem to account most for the wider distribution of artifacts.  Perhaps the Hermes, the first vessel to hit the reef, broke apart quickly and scattered with greater force than the Pearl.  The picture of the site gives the impression of a ship loose on the reef, being pushed about as portions of the hull are opened and heavy ballast and cannon dropped in discrete spots.  Ship’s carpenter James Robinson includes in a letter to his mother, “When the vessel struck she was thrown on her beam end and being endangered by the masts falling (if which had happened must inevitably have smashed the boats and then all manner of assistance was gone)—but God ordained it otherwise.”  The Hermes was not cradled by the reef, but disintegrated as she pounded across the sharp substrate.  The Pearl, sailing close by and striking the reef only a few minutes later, was more fortunate.  She seems to have lodged firmly in place in a deeper groove with her stern seaward, and then she broke up more gradually over time.  

To ask us questions, you can email the team at: sanctuaries@noaa.gov and we will answer your questions within the blog, or in a live internet broadcast later in the cruise. Again, stay tuned for details.


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