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Charles Beeker
Office of Underwater Science

Fritz Hanselmann
Office of Underwater Science

Geoffrey Conrad
Mathers Museum

Tracy James
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, November 17, 2008

Captain Kidd's treasure: Wood discovered, "living museum" in the works

Nov. 17, 2008

Editors: At 2 p.m. EST broadcast news stations in Indianapolis can receive around 20 minutes of expedition footage via the IU video link. For additional assistance, contact Dave Rust at 812-855-7019 and For a Spanish translation of this news release, visit Press inquiries related to "Shipwreck! Captain Kidd" press kits, DVDs or photos, contact Dara Klatt at National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6720 and The documentary airs on Nov. 18.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded Indiana University $200,000 to turn the Captain Kidd shipwreck site and three other underwater preserves in the Dominican Republic into no-take, no-anchor "Living Museums," where cultural discoveries will protect precious corals and other threatened biology in the surrounding reef systems under the supervision and support of the Dominican Republic's Oficina Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural Subacuático (ONPCS).

Captain Kidd Wood

Close up of Captain Kidd shipwreck teak keel with holes for hull fasteners.

Print-Quality Photo

The news comes just months after the unexpected discovery of teak wood on the Captain Kidd site, a discovery that IU archeologists say confirms that this is the Cara Merchant, the ship Captain William Kidd commandeered and then abandoned in 1699 as he raced to New York in an ill-fated attempt to clear his name of piracy charges.

"When we removed a cannon this summer for future identification, we exposed the keel of the ship," said Charles Beeker, director of the Office of Underwater Science in IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. "I'm just shocked that the keel is still there but the reason it's probably there is because it was teak, which is resistant to decomposition."

Beeker and archaeologist Geoffrey Conrad, director of the William Hammond Mathers Museum at IU Bloomington, have been conducting underwater and land-based archaeological research in the Dominican Republic for 12 years, exploring the era when the Old World and New World first met.

Much of their work is focused in the area of La Isabela Bay, the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement established by Christopher Columbus. The Taino were the first indigenous people to interact with Europeans. An expert in the creation of underwater preserves, Beeker already has helped create three preserves in the Dominican Republic to allow divers to explore cultural artifacts, such as cannons recovered from shipwrecks. While there last year on a research mission related to Columbus' ships, Beeker and his team were asked by the ONPCS to examine a shipwreck site discovered by a prominent local resident.

Captain Kidd Canon

Fritz Hanselmann preparing to recover one of the Captain Kidd "great guns."

Print-Quality Photo

To their surprise, they found an untouched shipwreck -- primarily piles of carefully stacked cannons -- resting in less than 10 feet of clear waters just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Island.

Once the discovery was assessed, however, the archaeological team and ONPCS were faced with the urgency of protecting the site from looters. The announcement last December of the discovery brought worldwide attention to the shipwreck but also enacted some protections. The ONPCS licensed Beeker, a recognized marine protection authority, and his IU team to study the wreckage and to convert the site into an underwater preserve, where it will be accessible to the public.

"This ship is very important to Dominican maritime heritage and it merits protection," said Francis Soto, ONPCS Technical Director.

The new USAID award, titled "Living Museums in the Sea: A Network of Underwater Archaeological Preserves in Southeastern Dominican Republic," will protect the cannons, ship keel and other items. Its primary goal, however, is to provide protections for stands of threatened elkhorn coral, rare pillar coral, and other biological resources in the surrounding reef systems.

"People often ask if we found treasure. We've always considered the ship the treasure," Beeker said. "The USAID award is unique because it combines biodiversity with protection of cultural resources. The preserves will provide a treasure of sorts for people to enjoy for hundreds of years."

The award, which becomes effective this December, provides funding for two years, with the expectation that the IU team will focus on protecting the Captain Kidd site. The work will include archaeological and biological inventories of the site, which Beeker expects to be open to the public by December 2009 in time for the 310th anniversary of the ship's loss. Underwater interpretive slates will be translated into five languages to reflect the anticipated international appeal of the sites.

"Interpretation is very important to this project, as one of our main goals is to educate the general public not only about the shipwreck, but also as to the fragility of the surrounding marine life and their ecosystem," said Fritz Hanselmann, research coordinator with the Office of Underwater Science.

The Captain Kidd site, which will feature the stack of cannons and anchor parts, is the only pirate ship ever discovered in the Caribbean and one of only three discovered in the Americas. In addition to recreational uses, the preserves also will be available as a scientific field resource for students and professionals in such fields as underwater archaeology, marine biology, ecology and geology.

Below are some developments since the discovery was announced last December.

  • The USAID award funds efforts to turn the Captain Kidd site and three existing underwater preserves into no-take, no-anchor "Living Museums." The four sites will be called the proposed La Romana-Bayahibe Regional Preserve Network.
  • National Geographic Channel will air a documentary on the discovery and study of the ship, including the excavation of the teak wood. "Shipwreck! Captain Kidd" premieres Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 9 p.m. EST as part of its "Expedition Week" programming.
  • Researchers discovered teak wood after chiseling under the cannon that would be raised for the purpose of future identification. Samples sent to two laboratories for analysis identified the wood in September as teak. Teak was used by shipbuilders in West India, where the Cara Merchant was built. Beeker said the wood analysis confirms that the ship is Captain Kidd's Cara Merchant. The ship, according to archival records, was built in Surat, West India. The trade networks had not expanded to be completely global, so few but the Spanish traded in the Caribbean. "Indian Merchants were trading with England, but they were not in the Western Hemisphere," Hanselmann said. "So it's a rare instance in the historical record of a ship built in India having been in the Caribbean. If you couple the historical record with the archaeological record and the results of the wood analysis being teak, that allows us to fill in more pieces of the puzzle as to what this ship is and where it came from."
  • Archival research identified the correct name of the ship, the Armenian-owned Cara Merchant. Several variations of this name had also been used.
  • IU researchers have met with tourism industry officials, business owners and several research-oriented non-governmental organizations to discuss the use and protection of the sites. The support of local dive shops and hotels is critical to monitoring and protecting the preserves.
  • Besides being made from teak, the ship construction could involve rabbetted joints, similar to tongue-and-groove construction. Beeker said he knows of no other 17th century ships like this that have been found, adding to the historical significance of the find.

Beeker also serves on the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He can be reached at 812-855-5748 or Conrad can be reached at 812-855-5340 and Hanselmann can be reached at 812-855-5748 or To learn more about the Underwater Science program visit

Francis Soto can be reached at 809-685-9072.

For additional assistance, contact Tracy James, University Communications, at 812-855-0084 and

Press inquiries related to "Shipwreck! Captain Kidd" press kits, DVDs or photos, contact Dara Klatt at National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6720 and