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Archaeology Overview

June 2, 2011

The Atlantic Canyons & the Billy Mitchell Fleet

By Rod Mather and John Jensen

Deep Background

During the last Ice Age, roughly 10,000–20,000 years ago, when sea level was approximately 100 meters lower than it is today, much of the continental shelf off Virginia was dry land. Toward the end of this time, Pleistocene megafauna and early human populations (Paleoindians) likely occupied the area. Ancient river systems passed through this landscape and cut deep canyons into what today we call the Outer Continental Shelf. These former fresh and salt-water environments were once home to Indians and the animals and plants which provided their food. Although these river systems and canyons have long since disappeared under a rising sea, the areas around the submerged canyons almost certainly contain important archaeological sites and evidence of the people who once lived there.


The same area of the ocean is also important to recent history. The mid-Atlantic outer continental shelf intersects with some of the most historically significant waters in the United States. The area has a long and rich history connected to exploration, warfare, commerce, fishing, and recreation. It encompasses the historic approaches to Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay and, by extension, key mid-Atlantic ports such as Norfolk, Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia. Four centuries of intense maritime use have left a rich, although poorly understood, collection of archaeological sites on the ocean floor on the edge of the shelf as well as in deeper water to the east.

Europeans first began visiting the Chesapeake Bay and the associated approaches in the mid-16th century. Two of the earliest English colonizing efforts in the New World took place in the region; Roanoake, North Carolina in 1585 and Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement. Reports of shipwrecks were sparse at first but became more frequent with time.

The Age of Shipwrecks

The introduction of tobacco cultivation to the region in 1612 along with forced slave labor shortly thereafter stimulated the mid-Atlantic economies and increased shipping. Virginia’s offshore waters saw action during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 as the fledgling United States Navy took on Europe’s most powerful sea power. Then, during the Civil War, warships, commerce raiders and blockade-runners all operated in the region.

High resolution multibeam sonar image of a shipwreck on the continental shelf near Norfolk Canyon

High resolution multibeam sonar image of a shipwreck on the continental shelf near Norfolk Canyon. Image courtesy R Mather, University of Rhode Island.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Navy’s presence in the waters off Virginia increased. Between 1889 and 1892, the country’s first battleship was built at the Norfolk Navy Yard, and between 1919 and 1922, its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langely, was also built there. During World War II, Norfolk became America’s primary antisubmarine base, while offshore, American and Allied shipping attempted to run the gauntlet of German U-boat “Wolf Packs.” Today, Norfolk serves as one of the largest naval facilities in the world and home to the North Atlantic Fleet.

Of all the recent historic activity off the Virginian coast, perhaps the most important is a series of naval experiments conducted by the United States in the early 1920s. In thirty days during the summer of 1921, the US military sank eight German warships off the coast of Virginia with a ninth sunk a month later. These included four U-boats (U-117, U-140, U-148 and U-111), three destroyers (G-102, S-132, and V-43), a cruiser (the Frankfurt) and a battleship (the Ostfriesland). The warships had been part of a larger collection of German vessels taken by the US government as reparations at the end of World War I.

According to the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war, all German naval vessels taken by the United States were to be either scrapped, or sunk irretrievably, by August 9, 1921. The circumstances surrounding their sinking, however, were highly significant. Four of the German warships were sunk by aerial bombardment and five by US surface ships. This symbolized a rift within the US military establishment as to the nature and future of warfare at sea.

The Billy Mitchell Fleet

The controversial and charismatic US army officer, Billy Mitchell, argued that World War I had demonstrated that airpower would wreak havoc on ponderous, slow-moving warships plying the world’s seas. This vision of the future represented a serious threat to the status quo, and paved the way for the experimental sinking off the nine German warships by a combination of aerial bombardment and surface ships. The experiments continued in 1923, farther to the south off Cape Lookout, North Carolina. This time the victims were the old battleships USS New Jersey and USS Virginia.

The Billy Mitchell Fleet is highly significant, both historically and archaeologically. The material remains represent not only significant historic shipwrecks, but also direct evidence of the relative success of aerial bombardment and surface guns at a time when airpower was in its infancy. Although much is known of the sinking of these ships, exact locations of the wrecks are unclear as is the condition of the wrecks. During this cruise we hope to map the areas were these shipwrecks may occur and the wrecks will be investigated in more detail during the 4-year project.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 15, 2012 8:09 pm

    All of the Billy Mitchell Fleet wrecks have been found and dived with the exception of the U-111 which lays in water to deep to dive. I will be giving a presentation at on March 23, 2012 at 7pm about the depths (which range from 235ft-420ft), the dives, and conditions of the wrecks.

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