It’s not exactly a silver lining in the nearly colossal loss of sand and dunes north of the Flagler Beach pier in the last few weeks. But it’s something. As the sea sheared off layer after layer of sand, it emerged: an old, gnarly anchor, its invisible metal roiled in barnacles and coquina, but its shape still stately and unmistakable, as if still ready but for chains, in Herman Melville’s phrase, “to cast anchor in the deep.”
“John Porcella was out combing the Flagler beach Monday with his metal detector when he came upon an old ship anchor,” Flagler Beach City Commission Chairman posted on his Facebook page. Erosion had exposed the anchor. It attracted attention, some of it undue. The Flagler County Historical Society had a report that “that damage was being done to the anchor by someone with a hammer.”
But between city officials and staffers, the Historical Society, Bryan’s old connections in St. Augustine, and Mayor Suzie Johnston’s call to the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program, known as LAMP, by afternoon a LAMP team of seven was on the ground, or rather in the water, feeling its way around the old artifact. The tide had come back in by then, so the team was not having an easy time of it. But they’ve returned since, conducting a small excavation and covering up the anchor afterward to protect it.
The roughly five-foot anchor, believed to weigh between half a ton and a ton, has not yet been given an age. “So right now, it’s about the type of materials as well as the shape,” Airielle Cathers, a dive safety officer and a maritime archeologist with LAMP, said, just out of the water. “Throughout the years anchors have had a very distinct manufacturing shape. And so it’s fairly easy at least to identify down to the century. So that’s kind of what we were hoping to at least be able to do–take some measurements, do some 3D modeling, and then take it back to our lab to analyze it further to find out exactly what the angles of the flukes are.” An anchor’s flukes are the arrow-like projections that dig into the seafloor.
“And if there’s any wood left, we could take wood samples to find out what species it is,” Catchers said. “But anchors were disposable objects. So you can’t necessarily say that an 18th century anchor wasn’t used in the 19th century, because you cut and go in a storm. So they’re pretty disposable. They don’t tell us too much about the age of a ship, like, say, a canon.”
It was to be a tricky negotiation between the team and the anchor, which wasn;t necessarily going to stay put. “It will probably stick around for a few more days at least,” Mackenzie Tabeling, a maritime archeologist with the team, said. “But we can move it eventually. The sand erosion, if this is happening fairly quickly, that could also move it. Just sort of like natural occurrences . People are the biggest threat to moving it though.”
Moving it, however, is not, at this point, the likeliest outcome. It would take chains, pulley weights, a whole winch system to move it. It would be expensive and time-consuming.
“Any historical objects that are found on Florida land, including the beaches, are by law, owned by the state of Florida, and so we work with the Florida state archaeologist to determine what we can and cannot do on the site,” Catchers said. “And oftentimes if they’re unable to secure funding to remove the anchor and then get it conserved, then the best thing for that object is to leave it buried. Conservation takes tens of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars to complete, and if you don’t do that conservation process, then things like anchors and cannons will turn up like they do in the Keys–rotted away, just turning into dust.”
So it’s likelier than not that the anchor will remain at sea. “And at that point, that’s okay for us,” Catchers said. “We don’t know if there is any wood remains, if it’s connected at all to another ship. But one of the things that you always have to take into consideration in shipwreck sites–and again, we don’t know if this is a shipwreck site or if it’s just disarticulated artifacts–shipwreck sites don’t come by naturally, they come by tragedy for the most part. So you have to take into consideration that people’s lives may have been lost in that event.”
LAMP wanted to conduct complete measurements and 3D imaging. The organization is in the middle of its own pair of federal grants, also intended to enhance protection of Florida’s cultural heritage. The team took time away from the grants to analyze the Flagler Beach fine. On Monday, the team included three staff members–Tabeling and Dorothy Rowland, both conservators in the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, Capt. Chris McCarron, a maritime archeologist, two East Carolina University graduate students and an undergraduate from Flagler College who had just completed her internship in maritime archeology.
Finds like the anchor aren’t routine, but they’re not entirely rare, either.
In 2020 and 2021 a LAMP team researched the Crescent Beach wreck–the bow section of a lumber ship that sank in that area. That wreck was exposed just like the anchor in Flagler Beach: by beach erosion, though in that case a powerful Nor’easter had ripped through beach. (What’s worrying local officials is that the recent carve-out north of the pier is not associated with storms. There’s speculation that it’s due to unusual tides because of the position of the moon, and that the sand will return with fall.)
At the Crescent Beach dig, which drew attention from The New York Times, the team cross-referenced the structural components, figured out it was American, researched what ships sank in that area and were able to identify the ship as likely–but not certainly–the Caroline Eddy, and to know that no one had perished in the sinking. (The ship had left Fernandina Beach in 1880, straight into a hurricane.) “But in the end, it was covered back up and it’s now under nine to 10 feet of sand, which will preserve it. There were no artifacts or anything associated. It’s just wood at this point.” Crescent Beach was the site of a beach renourishment project after the erosion, with hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand dumped there–as Flagler Beach hopes to see south of the pier next June, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does the same over 2.6 miles of beach there.
“This has been happening quite a bit all up and down the Florida coast,” Catchers said of the erosion. “One reason why the grant that we’re working on studies how major storms and hurricanes affect cultural resources. So this is on the minds of professionals in the field. But we have huge amounts of coastal erosion happening up and down the stage. I’m not exactly sure why this particular area is getting hit by coastal erosion so quickly in the past couple of weeks.”
It’s the inexplicable in echoes, though ultimately the ocean’s maws may have a more scientifically certain explanation than what archeologist can decipher from a buried postcard from another century. “The thing that we get really excited about isn’t necessarily the shiny things, which you very rarely ever get,” Cathers said, “but the things that can identify the ship that tell you the story of the people that worked and lived on those ships. At least for me, that’s a lot more exciting, because it’s a little bit more personal. You know, a quarter doesn’t tell me anything about the person that held it. But a watch might.”
Cathers speaks of her work with fluency and affection, as if the objects she studies are as alive with the memories of their historical surroundings today as they were then. “One of the things I worry about is people want to dig up things for the sake of digging up things to find stuff,” she says, “and they don’t realize that by removing something from its location, you remove information. Because placement of objects can tell you a lot about it. If you see a cluster of plates and silverware on some wood planks, if you take it, then they’re pretty objects. But if you map those artifacts in connection with the whole ship, you might be able to tell that that was the galley. And so you can start seeing the personal objects where the crew quarters were, things like that.”
There’s word, or hope, that the Flagler Beach Historical Museum might become the anchor’s custodian. Meanwhile if it is to be told–if it is willing to surrender its secrets, if it has any–the anchor’s story will need time, and it’s not yet clear to what extent LAMP will invest resources on this particular find. Or else it will be left to return to the deeps, where, as Ahab tells the severed head of a whale, “unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot.”
Postscript: On Aug. 15, Airielle Cathers emailed the following: “With the information found, in conjunction with historical knowledge of this coastline, we estimate that this anchor is from the 19th Century, most likely from a cargo-carrying ship. The measurements are as follows:
Overall Length: 2.49m
Arm Length (each): 1m
Fluke to Fluke: 1m 56cm.”