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Amidst the Timbers of a Storied Past: Nautical Archaeologists Visit Constitution

By Benjamin Ioset

In early January 2020, I and many of my fellow archaeologists gathered in Boston, Massachusetts for the 2020 Society for Historical Archaeology meetings. For myself, and some of my fellow graduate students from Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program, this presented a potential opportunity to visit USS Constitution, one of the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy following the Naval Act of 1794 and the only remaining vessel from the early years of the U.S. sailing navy.

In the fall, a colleague and I approached Alexis Catsambis of the Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command about arranging an extended tour, as many of the most exceptional aspects of Constitution’s construction lie beyond the standard tour route through the spar, gun and berth decks.

On January 10, we gathered along Constitution’s wharf in spite of the cold, joined by our colleagues from NHHC and spent more than an hour and a half walking and crawling through the various decks and compartments.

As a nautical archaeologist, I study maritime history and societies through the remains of ships, shipbuilding methods and technologies, and maritime communities. Constitution is a remarkable floating example of how ships form a microcosm of the societies, which built, maintain and sailed them. Constitution is importantly a reflection of the fledgling years of the United States. Humphrey’s innovative 44-gun heavy frigate, was designed to outclass contemporary frigates of European navies, which the United States could not hope to outnumber, while was also sufficiently fast to escape ships-of-the-line, which in turn would outclass it. The early frigates of the American Navy were also built amidst financial struggles and opposition to navies, viewed as an instrument of monarchy and, therefore, the potential for tyranny.

At the end of the 18th century, when Constitution was built, it was the pinnacle of contemporary naval architecture, being longer and wider than traditional frigates. Building such a vessel was an immense undertaking, as were the addressing the intricacies involved in arranging the decks, structuring the hull, and outfitting the ship. Particularly interesting for myself was the opportunity to go into the magazine, a narrow, entirely-copper plated compartment well below the waterline. As copper does not spark when contacted with other metals, this room was designed to prevent the possibility of any accidental ignition of the gunpowder stored within. The room was illuminated by lanterns behind thick panes of glass, these lamps entirely isolated from the compartment. This compartment is just one example of the intricacies of the ship.

It is not often that I get to spend time aboard such vessels, particularly one with such a storied history as  Constitution and indeed few vessels remaining from the age of fighting sail. All ships are built with a life expectancy, often spanning little more than a decade. At 223 years old, Constitution is an exceptional and irreplaceable piece of American naval heritage. The ship has undergone several rebuilds and only 10 to 15 percent of the hull timbers are original. However, the ongoing preservation efforts help Constitution serve as a testament to the early naval aspirations of the United States, and a tangible piece of history.

I would like to thank the Naval History and Heritage Command, and the crew of Constitution for arranging this unique and memorable opportunity.