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Archaeologists Say They May Have Found the Skeleton of the Pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy

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The skeleton of a famous pirate dead for more than three centuries may have been discovered. This week, researchers in Massachusetts announced they'd found a human skeleton near the wreck of a ship that went down off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717—and they think it just might be the remains of New England's greatest pirate, Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy.

Born to a poor English family in 1689, Bellamy joined the British navy at age 13. Following the War of Spanish Succession, Bellamy relocated to Massachusetts in 1715.

It's said that Bellamy fell in love with a local beauty named Maria Hallett, whose parents didn't want their daughter marrying a lowly sailor. This bit of folklore might be baseless—although historians do know that a young woman with that name did live in Eastham, Mass. at the time. But in any case, Bellamy soon left the colony to pursue a get-rich scheme.

He and a friend had learned that a treasure-laden Spanish fleet had recently sunk near the Florida Keys, so the duo promptly headed south. After failing to salvage any loot, Bellamy turned to a life of piracy, gathering a crew, acquiring a couple of sailing canoes, and heading out into the open seas. He had a real knack for the work: He captured more than 50 ships from 1716 to 1717. Forbes magazine has calculated that all the loot Bellamy seized would be worth $120 million in modern U.S. dollars.


Gold recovered from wreck of the Whydah.
Theodore Scott, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Despite the dark nickname bestowed by others—and his considerable net worth—Bellamy hated wealthy elites with a passion and liked to call himself the "Robin Hood of the Sea".

The flagship of Bellamy's fleet was the 300-ton Whydah, a former British slave vessel. In 1717, the pirate took the ship up to New England. Then, on April 26, 1717, a wicked storm sank the Whydah off the coast of Wellfleet. Most of the crew—including Bellamy—went down with it.

In 1984, marine explorer Barry Clifford and his diving team found the ship's wreckage. More than 200,000 artifacts from the site have since been taken ashore. To give them a proper home, Clifford established the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth in 2016.

This past November, researchers at the museum found part of a human skeleton inside a hardened block of sediment they'd taken from the Whydah's general area a few years ago. The slab also contained a belt, some cufflinks, and—most interestingly—a pistol. According to an Associated Press report, this gun is believed to have been Bellamy's.

Forensic scientists at the University of New Haven plan to compare DNA from the bones against that of a living Bellamy descendant in England. Whether the skeleton turns out to be the famous captain's or somebody else's, though, it'll most likely be interred—eventually. On February 19, the bones will be on display during a press conference.

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Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
This Mass Grave in England May Hold the Skeletons of Hundreds of Viking Invaders
Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity
Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity

In the late 9th century, a powerful army of Vikings from across Scandinavia joined forces to achieve a common goal: invade and conquer Anglo-Saxon England. Now, archaeologists think they may have identified the remains of hundreds of these marauding Norsemen, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a mass grave containing hundreds of skeletons on the grounds of St. Wystan's, a historic Ango-Saxon church in Repton, Derbyshire. Excavations that continued into the 1980s revealed that the mound contained 264 bodies, buried together in what appeared to be a partially leveled Anglo-Saxon chapel. Men comprised 80 percent of the remains, with several exhibiting signs of violent injury. Some graves held Scandinavian-style funerary goods, including a pendant of Thor's hammer and a Viking sword. One contained four children—possibly sacrificial offerings. The researchers also found the vestiges of a large defensive ditch.

mass grave of viking army at repton
© Martin Biddle

detail of mass viking grave at repton
© Martin Biddle

The researchers thought the mound was a Viking Great Army burial site; Anglo-Saxon records say Scandinavian combatants wintered in Repton in 873-874 CE, after forcing the local king into exile, and coins found at the site date to the same era.

Radiocarbon dating, however, suggested that some remains were actually from the 7th and 8th centuries CE. This meant that the skeletons would have been buried over the course of several centuries—some of them before the Vikings' arrival. The age of skeletons remained a point of contention among archaeologists for years.

Viking Era bones discovered at a burial mound in Repton, England
© Martin Biddle

Viking Era bones discovered at a burial mound in Repton, England.
© Martin Biddle

The current study found that those dates were wrong. University of Bristol archaeologist Cat Jarman re-evaluated the skeletons using a new form of carbon dating. She found that the bones did all date back to the late 9th century, contradicting initial tests. This mistake wasn't due to poor research methods, but to the Vikings' fish-heavy diets, she said.

"The previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old," Jarman explained in a press statement. "When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods. This confuses radiocarbon dates from archaeological bone material, and we need to correct for it by estimating how much seafood each individual ate."

Jarman says that pinpointing the age of the Repton burial mound helps illuminate the history of the earliest Viking raiders, who went on to become part of a considerable Scandinavian settlement in England. "Although these new radiocarbon dates don't prove that these were Viking army members, it now seems very likely," she said. "It also shows how new techniques can be used to reassess and finally solve centuries-old mysteries."

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Phil Arnold/Professional Coin Grading Service
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Gold Worth Millions, Salvaged From a 19th-Century Shipwreck, Is Going on Display in California
Phil Arnold/Professional Coin Grading Service
Phil Arnold/Professional Coin Grading Service

In 1857, on the heels of the Gold Rush, the S.S. Central America left Panama and sailed for New York with 30,000 pounds of California gold. A hurricane sent that treasure (and hundreds of the ship's passengers) to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of South Carolina, lost until the wreck's discovery in 1988. After 30 years, we finally have the chance to see the riches in southern California, according to the AP.

After years of controversial legal battles to determine who could claim the treasure, in 2000, Tommy Thompson—who made the discovery—sold his share of the gold to the California Gold Marketing Group for $50 million. The haul included 532 gold bars and thousands of gold coins. Thompson was arrested in 2015 after stiffing dozens of investors who backed his treasure hunting, none of whom saw a dime.

A model of the S.S. Central America sits in front of an illustration of a giant wave
A model of the S.S. South America on display at the National Museum of American History in 2009.
Mr.TinDC, Flickr//CC BY-ND 2.0

Those investors finally got some of their money back when the California Gold Marketing Group paid $30 million for more of the loot brought up from the wreckage in 2014. Now, that gold up for sale, and even those who can't afford to buy 19th-century gold can take a peek at it. The 3100 gold coins, 45 gold bars, and 80 pounds of gold dust on display at the Long Beach Convention Center in February will give the public a rare glimpse of treasure that spent more than 130 years sitting 7000 feet beneath the ocean's surface.

Gloved hands hold a 19th-century coin
Christina Good/Professional Coin Grading Service

Before that can happen, geologist Bob Evans, who took part in the original 1988 mission that located the shipwreck, has to clean off the rust and other sediment that encrusted the gold while it sat underwater. The gold on display was recovered during a 2014 dive to the wreck. According to the California Gold Marketing Group, a single coin could sell for as much as $1 million, thanks to its rare and historic nature.

You can see the gold in Long Beach between February 22 and 24, and if you dare, bid on some of it.

[h/t CNBC]

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