3D shipwreck models let you become a marine archaeologist in new ‘virtual museum’

The Blake Ridge Shipwreck is about 130 miles off the North Carolina coast and 7,000 feet underwater, out of reach to all but the most technically inclined and well-funded marine archaeology expeditions.

The new Virtual Archaeology Museum gives everyone the chance to “dive” thousands of feet below the ocean surface to study shipwrecks dating back to the 19th century. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) just launched the museum that uses detailed models and maps made by remotely operated submarines of five shipwrecks, one off the Carolinas and the other four in the Gulf of Mexico.

“With the ROVs we can clearly examine the artifacts in these shipwrecks up close, in thousands of feet of water. Through the use of the 3D models, we can see each shipwreck site as a whole and monitor changes to it over time,” Mike Celata, BOEM Gulf of Mexico regional director, said in a press release.

Glass bottles remain intact in the Monterrey C wreckage. BOEM

“Professional and amateur scientists will have the ability to monitor these shipwrecks over time, gauging changes to the shipwrecks and their artifacts, as well observing the various aquatic species that inhabit their hulls, making the bottom of the sea accessible like never before,” the BOEM said in a press release.

Touring the detailed 3D model of the Blake Ridge Shipwreck, you can see clear details on the anchor chain, a stoneware jug and the ship’s wooden framing, and the sea life that call the 200-year-old shipwreck home.

“The ‘Blake Ridge Wreck,’ whose real name remains a mystery, was likely a fishing vessel caught at sea in a storm in the early part of the early 19th century,” according to the museum.

“The Virtual Archaeology Museum will serve as a valuable teaching asset in both school and university classrooms, and the data collected will be a focal point for underwater researchers, its online presence allowing collaboration worldwide,” Celata said.

With the 3D models, anyone can explore each section of the ship, and high-resolution photographs mean people can get a close-up view for further study. The shipwrecks have intact glass bottles and pottery, cannons and specific design elements that can all give clues about where a ship came from and what it was doing when it sank.

The museum features three shipwrecks from the Gulf of Mexico, called the Monterrey A, B and C wrecks, which all sank in the same area.

“These wrecks lay almost 200 miles from land and maybe sank during the same storm. Monterrey C was by far the most damaged from hitting the seafloor and came to rest in over 4,000 feet of seawater,” according to the museum.

Monterrey-A stem post.JPG
The stem post on the Monterrey A shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM

There are a lot of mysteries left to be solved about the wrecks. On Monterrey A, the museum says, “the vessel carries at least 5 cannon and crates of muskets. Its mission remains a mystery. Was this a pirate, a privateer, a military ship, or a heavily defended merchant?”

“Monterrey B sank carrying a cargo of hides and large, white blocks of something we can’t identify. They could be tallow (fat from cattle) used for making candles, a tree sap called copal used in varnish, or even natural rubber. What else could they be? Pottery on the ship hints that the ship may have come from Mexico,” according to the museum.

You can explore the shipwrecks for yourself on the BOEM Virtual Archaeology Museum site using a web browser or a virtual reality headset.

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.