The Texas Historical Commission (THC) is the state agency responsible for the historic preservation of the sites that tell us the story of Texas around the state. Working with citizens and multiple organizations, the agency has been nationally recognized for their programs that have preserved architectural, archaeological, and cultural landmarks.
During the fall semester of 2014, working with the State Marine Archaeologist –whose responsibilities include the investigation, protection, and preservation of all historic shipwrecks that are located in state-owned waters– has been one of the greatest experiences that I could have asked for and will not forget. Over the past five months, primarily researching ships’ anchors from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as well as the anchor found during the La Belle excavation has given me a sense of purpose in continuing my archaeological career.
Prior to the invention of the anchor, anyone that didn’t want their boat — from primitive dugouts carved out of tree trunks to early wooden framed boats– to get washed away by the rising tide, would bring their boats in as far ashore as they could. With the invention of the anchor, boats could be left in one place without fear of loss. When in an anchorage area –where boats are able to drop anchor without fear of losing them as they wait for the sea level to rise–, the anchor prevents the boat from drifting and becoming grounded on a lee shore (Jobling 1993:1).
Curryer (1999) shows that there are many components to anchors. (For visual guidance, refer to figure 1) The largest component of the anchor is the shank. When looking at an anchor, this is the longest part that runs from top to bottom of the anchor. It is to the shank that the other components are added to until a full anchor is made. The arms and flukes are separate pieces that are welded together to create a single piece. The arm and fluke together are heated so that they can be welded to the shank. Once attached to the bottom of the shank, they create the crown of the anchor. Once the completed anchor reaches the ocean floor, and as the ship pulls away, tension placed on the line buries the flukes and arms into the ocean floor (Jobling 1993: 1)
The anchor stock, being a separate component, is not directly welded onto the anchor, but fastened on. Placed near the top of the shank but below the hole for the anchor ring or shackle, the stock was either made of wood or metal. A wooden stock was traditionally made of two to four long pieces of wood that were held together by metal bands, nails, or wooden peg-like nails called treenails around the shank of the anchor. The stock would be fitted at a right angle to the plane of the arms. As the boat pulled away and placed tension on the line, the stock turned the anchor into a position where the flukes could then dig into the ocean floor (Curryer 1999: 106). To keep the stock from spinning around the shank, two rectangular pieces of metal called the key were placed at the point where the stock was wanted to stay. This key was a form of lock that would be constructed on the shank. When the anchor stock was made, holes were made along the inside of the wooden timbers that would match up with the key. The pressure from the bands or nails that held the stock together, combined with the key, would keep the stock from rotating around the shank.
Anchors between the 17th through 19th centuries were made of wrought iron. The strength of the anchors was dependent on the quality of the metal that was available, as well as the skill of the smith making the anchor. The manufacture of the anchor was done in multiple steps that took years for a smith to perfect. If not manufactured properly or subpar materials were used; the anchor could break under pressure and place the lives of the crew and ship could be placed in danger.
Prior to the creation of the trip hammer (left, fig. 2), the iron of an anchor was shaped and welded through the use of sledgehammers. Once the trip hammer was invented, its use was primarily found in a military context and then later moved to the private market (Jobling 1993: 39). Water was used to lift the hammer that would then fall on the point of impact; this would weld the hot pieces of metal together as well as shape the anchor. Hammering the shank into the weight, shape, and form was the beginning of the formation process (fig. 2). After hammering the shank into the appropriate form, the arms were forged into the necessary length and shape. Once the arms are completed with the shaping process, the flukes were hammer welded onto each individual arm (fig. 3). The arms, with flukes attached, are hammer welded to the bottom of the shank after being heated (fig. 4). In order for the weld to properly hold, both the shank and arm had to be heated at the same time. This required two forges to be in use and multiple cranes and hands (Curryer 1999: 68). To get the second arm attached to the shank, the part of the anchor that was already completed had to be completely flipped over (fig. 5). The final step was to hammer out any impurities that may have made its way into the metal during the forging process (fig. 6).
There were five main types of stocked anchors: Sheet, Bower, Kedge, Stream, and Grapnel, with each having a specific purpose. The sheet anchor was the largest and heaviest anchor carried aboard any vessel. It was referred to as the last hope and its use was reserved for emergency purposes. The sheet anchor was placed on the top deck of the vessel for easy access so that in case all other anchors failed to hold the vessel, the sheet anchor would be thrown over, and all hands would hope that it would hold, thus the nickname, the last hope.
The most common anchor carried aboard a vessel and slightly smaller in size comparatively was called the bower anchor. The captain of the ship usually had one anchor on the port and starboard sides (left and right) of the front of the vessel. This is also how the anchor got its name, as the front of the vessel is known as the bow of the ship. The bower anchors were hung from the rails of the bow of the ship with line or cable readily attached. With the anchors hung from the rails, the captain could set the anchor out whenever the need arose. A distinction was made between the port and starboard bowers. The anchor that was considered to be the stronger of the two was named the best bower was stored on the starboard side of the ship and used the most often (Curryer 1993: 51).
The smaller anchors have not only been used to secure the vessels in one place, but also to move them forward or maneuver the vessel in a way that was not accomplished through the use of the rudder and sail. The stream anchors were used to keep the ship in place when the current was not as strong as in a stream or river. The kedge and stream anchors could also be used in combination with the heavier anchors to make sure the ship would not run aground. The kedge and stream anchors could be used to angle the vessel in a way that would keep the ship from drifting into shallow ground. The kedge anchor had a secondary use as well, as it was light enough that it could be used to get the ship upstream when there was not enough wind to keep the sails full. The anchor would be placed in a small boat and rowed as far ahead as the line would allow. At that point, it would be placed in the water, tension would be created, and then through manpower, the vessel could be pulled up to it where the process would then be repeated again (Curryer 1999: 51). This was a very slow and labor-intensive process called kedging that was not common practice. It was much more common for the captain to wait for the winds to change.
The smallest anchor manufactured and not carried by all vessels was the grapnel anchor. Much like the grappling hooks of today, it was a very light anchor that had four arms and was used to keep smaller vessels in place. This anchor was very light with the best benefit being that it did not matter how the anchor fell to the bottom. The presence four arms that were attached to the shank allowed it to catch any material that was around or dig into the seabed to hold the vessel in place.
The number of anchors, as well as type carried aboard a vessel depended on the size and weight of the vessel (fig. 7). The shipwreck Sovereign as reported by Tinniswood in 1945 was a ship that sailed in 1495. Being an 800-ton ship, it required an armament of eight anchors. The Sovereign carried: 1 sheet anchor, a larger bower anchor made specifically for the ship, 1 port (left) and 1 starboard (right) bower anchor, 1 stream anchor, and 2 kedge anchors (Jobling 1993: 45).
Ships being contracted by governments usually carried a standard armament, but once an anchor was lost, it was very common for the captain to purchase an anchor from the next port visited to replace the one that was lost. This can make it difficult to find out the nationality of a shipwreck in some cases, but can also help greatly if historical documentation of the purchase is found during research.
Curryer (1999) shows that the shank of an anchor can have multiple shapes dependent on stylistic preference of the country of origin and time period. The shank of an anchor of English origin from the 17th to 19th centuries did not change much, and commonly had a square to rectangular cross-section. Dutch, Swedish, and French anchors during this time period are recorded as having an octagonal cross-section. Dutch anchors, claimed to be the strongest made, the metal used was a good quality, and the thickness of it along the shank as well as the arms made it strong. The angle at the throat –the inner area where the shank and arms meet– (fig 1) may have also played a role in increasing the holding power of the anchor before it became too stressed and broke. The Dutch specifically through a recorded comment ‘as meager as a Spanish anchor’ deemed Spanish anchors the weakest anchors. Spanish anchors could have been weak due to the thinness of the metal unable to hold the pressures of the larger ships of the time placing extreme pressures on them possibly due to a technical inability to forge thicker anchors (Curryer 1999: 44)
My goal while performing my internship at the THC was to create a typology of anchors. This typology is not meant to have full diagnostic details of the anchors included, but rather, be full of photos of anchors found on archeological projects organized by nationality and time period. There are projects currently underway that are trying to record the history of anchors. The Big Anchor Project (http://www.biganchorproject.com) is trying to record anchors from all over the world, but this book, by design is meant to help archaeologists find where and when an anchor found at a shipwreck may have originated based on comparisons made through sight. The narrowing down of the nation of origin of an anchor on-site can help the archaeologist not only answer certain research questions made during the planning phase of a project, but possibly help identify the ship itself. The problem that exists currently though, is that there have not been many anchors that have been studied in a scientific way or even documented scientifically. The most common recording of an anchor on-site is that it was found. There could be many reasons for this, and understandably, the most reasonable explanation that I can see is the extra expense required to store something of a larger size as that of an anchor. Coupled with the cost of conservation and restoration of something this size and the lack of scientific study on anchors already, the full documentation and study of anchors has not been given priority while a project is still in the planning phase. Anchors can be very informative though, and deserve the attention that any other find at a site is granted. It may not be as cool as the cannon or gun or sword that it may lay next to, but it is most certainly a part of the historical record.
Towards the end of my internship, my goal changed. While still trying to find anchors that could be added to the typology, and opportunity arose to work on the anchor of La Belle. This anchor is not a complete anchor, but broken in two pieces with the shank being the only surviving portion. Along with the State Marine Archeologist, I was given the opportunity to do the technical write-up for the anchor. This work has been fulfilling and has shown me really how hard it can be to take an artifact from the finds stage to full understanding. Like any archaeological artifact, anchors alone cannot give the whole story of a shipwreck. When coupled with research and a better understanding of their manufacture and use, anchors can give the archaeologist an enormous insight into where a ship came from and possibly where it has been. This fall semester internship at the THC has given me an insight into a possible needed area of expertise within the maritime archaeology community and may become a fulfilling life work. Armed with the knowledge that I have gained over this semester about shipwrecks and their anchors, I feel that I am at the beginning of my journey into being known as “Aaron the Anchor Man.”
- Curryer, Betty N.
1999 Anchors: An illustrated history. London. Chatham Publishing
- Jobling, Harold J. W.
1993 The History and Development of English Anchors CA. 1550 to 1850M.A. Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University.
- Upham, N. E.,
1983 Anchors. Buckinghamshire. Shire Publications
- Figures were taken from Anchors: An illustrated history by Curryer, Betty N.