Renowned expert helping with local shipwrecks
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — By identifying the different types of wood used, and some of the building methods employed, one local expert is helping others to narrow down the origin of a section of shipwrecked hull that washed ashore south of Ponte Vedra Beach in March.
“I don’t normally see this,” Lee Newsom said Monday morning while holding up a small section of that ship’s frame. “I see a lot of oak in this position.”
The specimen in Newsom’s hand was American beech and she pointed out that the way it had been milled provided more clues.
“That’s the center of the tree,” she said. “You don’t normally do that either unless you are short on wood.”
Newsom would know.
Officially, she’s a professor of anthropology at Flagler College in St. Augustine, but her specialty and what she works most in is what she calls “environmental archaeology,” which is the study of plant-based materials at archaeological sites.
That’s only one of many ways to describe what she does.
“I am an archaeologist, paleoethnobotanist, and wood anatomist,” reads a portion of her research description on the college’s website. “My research involves work with preserved plant remains from archaeological and paleontological sites, and is generally directed toward trying to unravel some of the deep history and inter-complexities of the human-environmental relationship.”
She studied at the University of Florida, where she earned her doctorate and eventually wound up at Penn State, which is where she was when she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002.
“I stayed at Penn State for 15 years and retired early because I wanted to come back to Florida,” she said while standing in her small lab in downtown St. Augustine’s Government House surrounded by specimens from various projects.
Because she works in conjunction with arrangements through the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida she is involved in a lot of different work.
She rattled off some of the projects, veering into descriptions of each one with a healthy dose of enthusiasm.
There’s a Paleo-Indian site at Wakulla Springs, a Calusa site on Mound Key, a project in Cuba and even a small canvas bag of fossils that a local beachcomber brought in.
He also had some metal fittings that he said he found north of the city.
“Now I am wondering if they actually go with that ship,” she said, referencing the recent discovery that is now believed to be the remnants of a ship that was likely built in the mid-19th century and was probably 100- to 150-feet long.
Though she works on all kinds of projects, Newsom, the granddaughter of a shipwright, said she has worked on more than 200 shipwrecks in her career and enjoys them.
“I’m just super interested in the shipbuilding,” she said. “I come by it honestly.”
She’s been back in Florida since 2016, and Chuck Meide, the director of maritime research at the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, said her reputation in the field preceded her.
“We were really overjoyed,” he said, recalling when they heard someone with Newsom’s background and expertise was coming to Flagler College. “I was personally excited.”
Meide is among the archaeologists who have been studying the Ponte Vedra shipwreck — often referred to now as the “Spring Break Wreck” — since it washed up on March 28.
He and others on Thursday managed a move of the roughly 50-foot long artifact up the beach and across State Road A1A to the trailhead in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, where officials hope to build a shelter to protect it from the elements.
Newsom, through her study of the samples she has been given, says she’s seen white pine, longleaf pine, American beech and white oak in the ship.
Though there is still more research to do and researchers have to verify where such species were growing in the mid-19th century, both she and Meide have mentioned Georgia, the Carolinas and possibly the Gulf Coast as origins for much of the timber.
“This is a great way to really narrow down the geographic origin of the ship,” Meide said.
It’s not the first time that Newsom has stepped in to help out with local finds.
Meide, who has been at the lighthouse since 2006, knew that she had worked on some projects before he got there.
In the roughly two years since she has been back, he said, she’s been hard at work.
“I’d say at least six or seven wrecks that she’s helped us with or we are cataloguing now and about to hand over to her,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier that she’s here.”
Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com