In an age where all life’s questions can be answered with the push of a button, physical remnants of the past continue to prove that “history” isn’t as clear cut as we’d like to believe. With each new discovery, the bits and pieces we’ve come to accept as complete fact come together to fill in the gaps that have lingered in the back of our minds. But as we step back and examine this new, indisputable truth, we may not always like what we see.
Such was the case for one group of American researchers, for as they worked to learn the fate of one legendary submarine they discovered that everything they thought they knew was wrong. Not only did the submarine itself leave the scholars baffled, but what they found inside defied reason altogether.
The American Civil War is perhaps remembered as the bloodiest in the country’s history — and for good reason. Between 620,000 and 750,000 individuals lost their lives in the conflict, more than the total number of U.S. military deaths in all other wars combined.
Western Reserve Historical Society
This high casualty count was in large part due to the introduction of advanced military technologies, including rapid-firing weapons and ironclad warships. However, one new invention gave Confederate troops in particular a significant edge when it came to the war at sea…
American Civil War Story
The submarine. While the Union army primarily used these vessels to remove underwater obstructions, the Confederacy employed them as fully fledged war machines, especially those constructed by Horace Lawson Hunley.
Naval History and Heritage Command
A respected marine engineer, Hunley constructed his first war-ready vessel, Pioneer, in New Orleans in February 1862. However, Union forces captured the city later that year and Hunley was forced to scuttle the sub before enemy troops could seize it.
After relocating to Alabama, Hunley and his team completed their second sub, American Diver, in early 1863. With the vessel fully functional, Hunley hoped to use the Diver to breach the Union naval blockade that was slowly strangling the Confederacy.
Crazy Crow Trading Post
Unfortunately, American Diver sunk while crossing Mobile Bay, sending Hunley right back to the drawing board. The engineer wouldn’t be deterred, however, and using his own funds he crafted a third submarine, later dubbed the H.L. Hunley.
Army Historical Foundation
Capable of carrying eight men, the Hunley was powered via hand crank and equipped with two tanks that served to adjust the ballast of the sub. The vessel was also armed with a spar torpedo (below), a small pole-mounted explosive capable of sinking an enemy ship.
Raul / Flickr
Still, these measures didn’t stop the Hunley from being swamped during early tests after the wake of a passing ship entered its open hatches. Five crewmen were killed in the accident, though Hunley opted to keep the vessel in service.
This proved to be a fatal mistake, however, as on October 15, 1863, the engineer decided to accompany his crew on a routine combat exercise. The sub sank once more and killed all eight crew members aboard, including Hunley himself.
Alabama Department of Archives and History / Twitter
But even with such a poor track record, the Hunley was raised once again in 1864 and sent to the Union blockade. Manned by Lieutenant George E. Dixon and seven crewmen, the sub was tasked with taking down the formidable Housatonic warship.
Not only did the Hunley miraculously stay afloat, but the vessel actually blew a hole in the Housatonic and sent it to the seafloor. This marked the first time in naval history that a submarine had successfully sunk an enemy warship.
National Park Service
But the celebration was short-lived, as the Hunley failed to resurface shortly after the attack. Hours passed, and neither the sub nor its crew members were seen again.
The story of the famous sub was eventually lost to time, though in 1970 whispers of its whereabouts began making the rounds. Evidently, an archaeologist with the Sea Research Society named Edward Lee Spence had discovered the final resting place of the Hunley.
But it wasn’t until 1995 that the rumors were finally confirmed. The Hunley sank just 300 feet from the wreck of the Housatonic, and on August 8, 2000, researchers decided to find out why.
After being raised from the water, the Hunley was transported to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston where restoration efforts began. But as the archaeologists began scrubbing 136 years worth of sand and mud from the vessel, they couldn’t help themselves from peeking inside.
Sure enough, the remains of the Hunley‘s crewmen were still aboard, though there was something… off about them. None of the bodies appeared to have suffered any kind of trauma, and most of the crew were positioned at their stations with no sign that they’d tried to escape.
The archaeologists also discovered a small hole where a pipe had broken, though it appeared that none of the crewmen had activated the mechanism to pump out the excess water. Had the men simply been unable to reach the pump in time, or was there something else at play?
One proposed theory is that the Hunley had accidentally collided with the USS Canandaigua (below) as it rushed to the Housatonic‘s aid. Others, however, believe the vessel never even got a chance to head for shore.
They believe that crew of the Hunley actually perished immediately upon sinking the Housatonic. The vessel was likely too close when its torpedo touched the warship, and the resulting shockwave would’ve been strong enough to kill all those onboard.
The Crazy Tourist
For now, the true cause of the Hunley‘s sinking remains a mystery, though even the deepest of oceans can’t hide their secrets forever. Just ask Jon Adams, whose team of divers made a startling discovery in the Black Sea that may very well rewrite history.
Adams, a professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton in England, was leading a team to conduct geophysical surveys of submerged ancient landscapes. It might not sound exciting, but don’t let the science-speak fool you…
Black Sea Map
Since 2015, this team scoured nearly 6,000 feet below the surface of the Black Sea, which no human had seen since the end of the Ice Age! Since humans can only travel to a recommended depth of 130 feet, Adams needed special equipment to reach the seafloor.
Black Sea MAP
The team’s off-shore vessel was equipped with the world’s best underwater technology and equipment. There were two Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to survey the ocean floor and send data back to the main vessel.
Black Sea MAP
One of the ROVs carried bright lights and high-definition cameras. Additionally, the ROV had a laser scanner and other equipment to record data which had gone undiscovered for centuries.
University of Southampton
The purpose of this mission was not only to map previously unexplored areas of the Black Sea, but scientists hoped to discover a world that long since forgotten. They hoped to gain insights on how the pre-historic communities lived.
Since 2015, Adams and his team spent three seasons mapping the Black Sea, covering over 800 miles of sea floor and collecting more than 330 feet of sediment core samples in various strategic locations.
Black Sea MAP
And they’d discovered over 60 shipwreck sites during their mission. Some of the sites dated back to the Byzantine, Roman, and Hellenistic periods. The oxygen depleted water made for an extraordinary possibility of preservation for the treasures they found.
Black Sea MAP
This third season proved to be their most successful season so far. In the last few weeks of exploration, they found 20 new shipwrecks from hundreds to thousands of feet below their vessel. Ships with masts still standing, rudders intact, and equipment still lying on the deck. Impressive!
These discoveries were exciting because they showed structural features, fittings, and equipment that only drawings and literature had described prior. Still, these were not the most exciting discoveries the team made…
Black Sea MAP
Off the coast of Bulgaria in late 2017, the team was scanning the sea floor when they noticed an anomaly: a 75-foot-long ship that was partially buried on its side more than a mile below the surface.
University of Southampton
The sunken ship was perfectly preserved so that its mast and rowing benches were still intact. Marine archaeologist Brendan Foley stated, “The usual critters that eat wood and other organics elsewhere… cannot live in these anoxic waters, so shipwrecks… are preserved as if they were in a… big pickle jar.”
Black Sea MAP
From the video footage and imagery, the vessel was thought to be an oar-and-sail-powered Greek vessel. The features on the ship looked similar to that of the Greek trading vessel that appeared on the famous “Siren Vase” located in the British Museum in London.
This famous vase depicts Odysseus tied to the mast of the ship as depicted in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” The vase itself has been dated to about 480 B.C. Not much is known about its creator, so scientists were intrigued about whether there was a connection between the two.
Adams’ team collected a small piece of the ship using the ROV (so as not to disturb the specimen) for radiocarbon dating. When they got the test results back, the whole team realized how important this scientific discovery really was.
Black Sea MAP
Carbon dating revealed the vessel dated back to around 400 B.C. That meant that the ship had been lying undisturbed at the bottom on the Black Sea for more than 2,400 years — and everything about it was perfectly preserved!
Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal
Additionally, the vessel just discovered was the oldest intact shipwreck to ever be discovered! Adams stated, “A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over two kilometers of water, is something I would never have believed possible.”
Prior to this discovery, only fragments of ships had been found that pre-date the Greek vessel — the oldest being 3,000-years-old. But with this discovery, and its perfect preservation, the team was able to gain insight as to how far off the coast Greek trading ships would have traveled.
Black Sea MAP
The team concluded that the likely demise of the vessel was a result of an intense storm that brought water aboard. Archaeologists believed the ship probably had a crew of about 15 to 25 men who couldn’t bail water overboard quickly enough.
The technology available these days is remarkable. Foley stated, “The new systems reduce the costs of deep ocean survey and search, and increase the area that can be investigated in a given time. Now it’s becoming possible to map an entire basin (think: the whole Black Sea) and discover every shipwreck on the seafloor.”
Black Sea MAP
Adams and his team plan to leave the Greek vessel at the bottom of the ocean where it belongs. Bringing it to the surface would require them to take apart joints, which would ruin its preservation. They also planed to keep the coordinates of this discovery a secret.
Black Sea MAP
Adams said, “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.” They planned to share their discoveries with the world in the upcoming years, as most of their expeditions were followed by BAFTA-winning filmmakers.
But halfway across the world, another underwater discovery was also beginning to rock some boats. Beneath the calm waters of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, there is a massive secret, one that lay hidden for hundreds of years. But it didn’t stay that way forever.
Flickr / Christian Loader
It is the wreck of the Whydah, a massive ship built to hold 150 men and several hundred tons of cargo. It went missing off the coast of New England in 1717, and many assumed it was lost forever.
However, explorer Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of the Whydah in 1984, and he has been digging up artifacts from the site ever since. His exploits make him one of the greatest treasure hunters of all time.
Wicked Local Yarmouth
Barry has long been on the hunt for a treasure that will make him a legend. He once believed he found the remnants of the Santa Maria from Christopher Columbus’ original 1492 voyage, but tests later determined it was a different vessel.
The Whydah, however, was a monumental find. It was the flagship of one of history’s greatest pirates: Black Sam Bellamy. This captain was known as the ‘Robin Hood of the Sea,’ and for good reason.
For one thing, Bellamy only targeted wealthy merchants and tried to use as little violence as possible. His crew members received equal pay and respect, even those who were Native Americans or former slaves.
In fact, the Whydah was originally the property of slave traders until Bellamy seized it by force and freed the captives aboard.
Valparaiso University, Wikimedia Commons
Most famously, Bellamy pulled off the biggest heists in pirate history. Historians estimate that he plundered the modern equivalent of $120 million throughout his career.
These daring exploits made Bellamy one of the most talked-about pirates of his time. He rose above his criminal origins to become a bona fide folk hero.
Unfortunately, Bellamy didn’t have much time to enjoy his success. A massive storm sank the Whydah, claiming untold amounts of treasure and most of the crew, including Bellamy himself.
Centuries later, Clifford and his colleagues have unearthed countless relics and treasures from the wreck, and they established the Whydah Pirate Museum to share Bellamy’s story.
Even though Clifford’s team has been studying this site for decades, he still felt like they were only scratching the surface. Then, one diving mission in late 2016 changed everything.
The explorers located a large chunk of debris from the Whydah that had many artifacts trapped inside of it. They hauled it up to dry land for a closer look.
It presented a virtual treasure trove, with genuine coins and seafaring equipment jutting through the rough surface. But this motherlode contained one thing the scientists didn’t expect to find… human bones.
They came across a femur just a short distance away from what appeared to be Bellamy’s pistol. Could it be the remains of the late great Captain himself?
Wikimedia Commons / WellCome Images
Clifford knew they needed proof, so he recruited a team of forensic scientists. They extracted DNA from the bone and compared it to that of one of Bellamy’s descendants in the United Kingdom. At last, the results came in…
Flickr / vâniamoreira1
But it was not a match. This bone likely belonged to an anonymous crew member, but certainly not to Captain Bellamy. The elusive Black Sam slipped away from authorities once again.
The bad news sunk Clifford’s theory faster than the Whydah. Nevertheless, the bone gave researchers the chance to learn more about the typical sailor from that era.
Clifford can still take pride in his ongoing excavation of the Whydah. After all, no other famous pirate ship has been studied so closely. Nobody can question his accomplishments or contributions to history.
Besides, the mysteries of the Whydah are still out there in the briny deep, and Bellamy’s final resting place may even surface someday. All it will take is the right person to find it.