June 12, 2011 -- The notorious pirate Blackbeard used improvised weapons and missiles to terrorize the seas from Virginia to the Caribbean in the early 18th century, an exploration of the ocean floor off the North Carolina coast has revealed.
Aimed at recovering a 1.4-ton (3,000-lb) anchor, the two-week expedition on what is believed to be the wreck of Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, also produced new evidence about the pirate's terror tactics.
As they explored the site, archaeologists from North Carolina's Department of Cultural Resources noticed three metallic clusters which covered a 5-by 3-foot-square area on the sea bed.
"The three conglomerates consist mostly of lead shot, nails, and glass which we suspect were put in canvas bags and fired from the cannons," Mark Wilde-Ramsing, deputy state archaeologist and leader of the expedition, told Discovery News. "In the end, we were not able to recover these items during the expedition. They likely will be recovered this coming fall when we return to the site."
The metallic conglomerates will likely confirm what has already emerged from past expeditions. The Queen Anne's Revenge has already yielded more than 250,000 artifacts since its discovery in 1996. The recovery of ammunition stuffed into several cannons provided a glimpse into the pirate's creative use of weapons.
"There are 24 cannons within the wreckage and five have been cleaned. Four cannons were loaded and one had three 9-inch bolts, in front of the cannon ball, which would have been very terrorizing when shot," Wilde-Ramsing said.
The archaeologists also found the remains of another frightening contraption -- two identical cannon balls linked by an iron bar or chain. Producing a spinning effect when fired from cannon, these contrivances were used at close range to slash through the rigging of an enemy ship.
"As with all pirates, Blackbeard did not want to sink merchant ships but scare them into giving up. Shooting bolts and scrap lead, iron and glass would have been very effective," Wilde-Ramsing said.
According to the archaeologist, historical evidence indicates that Blackbeard also put the same mixture along with gunpowder into bottles with a wick.
"After lighting it, he tossed it onto the deck of opposing ships when at close range," Wilde-Ramsing said.
Blackbeard, whose real name was widely believed to be Edward Teach, or Edward Thatch, was born in Bristol in 1680 and commanded four vessels and 300 pirates in his heyday.
"He was a tall man with thick black hair and beard, which he braided and put burning wicks in to give him a devilish look," Wilde-Ramsing said.
In November 1717, Blackbeard captured a French slave ship called La Concorde near the island of Martinique. Renamed Queen Anne's Revenge, it became his flagship and sailed the Caribbean with three smaller sloops, attacking merchant ships. According to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science and the author of "Greek Fire, Poison, Arrows and Scorpion Bombs," Blackbeard's creative use of cannon balls and other weapons is deeply rooted in the ancient world.
"Ancient prototypes of projectiles filled with iron spikes and other sharp objects already appear in Kautilya's Arthashastra, a Hindu military manual dating to the 4th century B.C.," Mayor told Discovery News.
Improvised weapons were also devised by the Phoenician defenders of Tyre in Lebanon during Alexander's siege in 332 B.C.
Blackbeard the Pirate: An Early Terrorist
"They heated sand in large bronze shields and then catapulted the red-hot sand onto Alexander's besieging soldiers," Mayor said.
Blackbeard's improvised grenades also recall Leonardo da Vinci's sketches for his invention of "Cluster Bombs." These cluster bombs consisted of round shells, made of a pliable leather or linen casing, stitched around a bunch of iron balls and sharp iron spacers. The resulting missiles had a greater range and a more lethal impact than a single cannonball.
The terror inflicted by Blackbeard's improvised weapons on the Queen Anne's Revenge turned out to be short-lived. The pirate lost his flagship exactly 293 years ago, on June 10, 1718, while attempting to enter Beaufort Inlet, N.C.
Five months later he was killed in a bloody battle at Ocracoke Inlet, his head cut off and his body tossed overboard.