Archaeologist James Delgado at the bow of the blockade runner 1864 Mary Celestia. *Photo by Tane Casserley/NOAA
Archaeologist James Delgado at the bow of the blockade runner 1864 Mary Celestia. *Photo by Tane Casserley/NOAA

THURSDAY, JUNE 23: A secret stash of wine bottles discovered on the shipwreck the Mary-Celestia marks a new chapter in the story of this well-documented Civil War blockade-runner.

A team of international marine archaeologists and Government’s Conservation Services, made the discovery of five full wine bottles last week during a high-profile excavation.

They found the bottles stashed in a crumbling wooden crate in the bow of the ship, separate from the main cargo that has long been excavated. The mini haul adds weight to the theory that the blockade-runner, which sunk under mysterious circumstances in 1864, was carrying contraband or that the bosun had stowed away a personal stash of goods there.

I accompanied the excavation team on the dive when the stash was discovered. Speaking to me as he emerged from the water, Dr James Delgado, director of the Maritime Heritage Program for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and host of the former National Geographic series Sea Hunters, said: “As to whether or not this is part of a regular cargo — the fact that we have wine sitting up there at the tip of the bow is very unusual. It’s not in a cargo area so this is either somebody’s personal stash, it’s something that they are intending to sell on their own or it is contraband that is being hidden as part of a shipment that ostensibly, at this stage of the war, should just be dedicated to military supplies and not to commodities that are going to fetch a high price. People have always traded illicitly when there is a profit to be made.”

Custodian of Historic Wrecks Dr Phillip Max Rouja explained that finding the bottles was merely the start of the discovery. Asked what the next stage of the project entailed he joked: “We have a drink and celebrate but not from them,” pointing to the bottles.

“I can’t imagine feeling anymore brilliant than I do now but if we can find a maker’s name that is even better.

“Our colleagues at NOAA have expertise in finding out about the wine. We tried to make contacts in Europe and figure out ways to analyse the wine but now there is more weight behind doing it — there is a very clear connected line of where this came from. This is perfect providence — now you can take the time to go though and test the grape. You can go from 1864 to today in one clear line. There are probably some wine connoisseurs who might be able to come on board and help us out — that is what we are hoping for.”

The Mary-Celestia is a wreck with historical significance to the United Kingdom, where she was built, Bermuda, where she operated out of and where she wrecked and the United States, where she ran to as a blockade-runner during the US Civil War.

The excavation also yielded the remains of leather shoes, rope, a hairbrush and the wooden form for a shoe among other items.

Dr Delgado is loath to make any conclusions at his early stage of discovery.

“It’s not until we have really done the digging and mapping and laboratory analysis that we will be able to say more and that’s the excitement of it — even when you go to a site like this that is well known, you always can learn more.”

The expedition has been filmed by LookBermuda and will be made available through schools, LookBermuda channel one and possibly major US networks including National Geographic or PBS. LookBermuda’s director J-P Rouja told us that this film was the TV production company’s most ambitious project to date.

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