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Conn. Researchers Investigating Skeletal Remains Found At Pirate Shipwreck

A museum visitor walks by the display of a bell once belonging to the pirate ship Whydah Gally at the Whydah Pirate Museum, in Yarmouth, Mass.
Steven Senne
AP Photo
A visitor walks by the display of a bell once belonging to the pirate ship Whydah Gally at the Whydah Pirate Museum in Yarmouth, Mass.

In 1984, the Whydah Gally was discovered on the ocean floor off the coast of Cape Cod. It was the first authenticated pirate ship ever found, and it brought to life the tales of treasure from what is known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.”

The Whydah was a slave ship before it was hijacked by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy on its maiden voyage. It sunk during a storm in 1717, but not before its crew ransacked more than 50 other ships.

Since the discovery of the shipwreck 37 years ago, artifacts have continued to be found.

Most recently, divers discovered at least six skeletal remains. It’s the second time human remains were found at the site. Bones were previously found in 2018.

Tim Palmbach is a professor at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. He leads the university’s forensic team to identify the remains.

The transcription below has been edited for clarity.

Lori Mack: Can you give us a little background on what is known about the Whydah?

Tim Palmbach: This is Captain Jack Bellamy, the most notorious pirate out there, and there’s so much historical relevance to this. I mean, he had gold and treasure from in excess of 50 different ships on his boat over his expeditions, and also slaves as well.

So it was just a really interesting mix of a different group of people and tremendous wealth and a pirate of some really great intrigue.

It’s been more than 300 years since that ship sank. How were these remains preserved in the ocean for so long?

It’s a really cool process, which until we got involved in this case, I knew nothing about it. It’s called concretions, which is what it sounds like. It’s like a block. I don’t really know about the soil or geography about how this happens. But they all kind of solidified -- gold and guns and muskets and bones and clothing -- they solidified into these hard blocks that they call concretions, and they can be hundreds to thousands of pounds.

The process of going into those concretions [requires going] slow enough that you don’t damage things like bones, which are fragile. And you preserve them because you get them out of the ocean and oxidation kicks in and a lot of bad things happen.

It can literally take them a month when they see the protrusion or an X-ray of an area of the concretion and know that there’s a bone in there to get that one bone out. This process is going to be years and years and years in the making.

What do we know about the identities of those on board the Whydah when she went down?

They have some people tentatively identified just through historical records and captain’s logs and clothing and other artifacts and just really good historical investigations. But the majority aren’t identified and that’s up to us to try to help them solve that mystery using DNA. Since we got involved two years ago, the newest tool on the block is the whole concept of forensic genealogy. This is the Ancestry.com world we all live in. We can take profiles and find out who our ancestors are.

So we think a lot of what’s going to happen here is that kind of DNA analysis will be conducted when possible. And we’ll find whole generations of families that tie back to these pirates or other passengers on the ship.

Are there any known descendants of the Whydah’s captain, Samuel ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy?

Yes, and the last time we did this work in 2018, everybody was excited thinking that we were actually going to have his remains. It made perfectly good sense because the part of the concretion where they took this bone out of was next to a piece of a pistol that, which would have been his. Spatially, this made sense it was him.

We spent several months getting the viable profile out because it was a big learning curve and tough. We then presented the opportunity for the investigators on the Whydah team to go get relatives in England and provide DNA samples. We did that comparison and unfortunately those weren’t the skeletal remains.

We’re still really hopeful the day is going to come when one of these bones is going to be Captain Bellamy.

So obviously, you’re hoping that one of these recent discoveries turns out to be him?

Well, yeah. I mean, I think you all are hoping that more than we are, because it’s a great story, right? But adding to that, think of some of the slaves that could be on there and the life that they lived, their ancestors and what it would mean to them to find them and identify them and then be given some remains for a decent, proper burial. I think every one of those 140 [passengers] has got their own right for an equally important story.

Can you walk us through your process? What are you looking for as you’re doing this work?

There are good bones and there’s bad bones and long bones -- leg bones -- are better than others and, and the epiphysis -- or ends -- give us better results.

We’re still trying to understand what the chemistry of the concretion is. It seems to be very protected. It seems like the more buried in the concretion, the better DNA we’re going to get, but we really don’t honestly know until we get it.

Then we have the challenge of trying to minimize the sample size that we take because obviously we are going to have to destroy the piece that we’re taking for analysis. The goal is to destroy as absolute little as we can. So it’s a really nuanced balancing act and discovery to even find a sample that’s going to give us a profile.

You worked for the Connecticut Department of Public Safety for more than two decades. Can you talk more broadly about how your background working on criminal cases has expanded to this type of archaeological work?

What I’ve learned over the years is the value of these tools to solve problems. And even over the last few years, I’m just blown away by what current law enforcement has available and the power and capacity of DNA.

We’re going to be able to do things like this as we move forward to weigh in on history, as well as unsolved crimes. I think we often jump on those because they’re really important or wrongful conviction cases because those are really important. But a lot of these historical cases are equally challenging and super exciting to be part of.

Tucker Ives produced this interview for the web.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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