The Value of Pickles
Precious coins aren't the only treasure that the Republic has to give up. The wreck site also offers a rare, "time capsule" glimpse into a turbulent and fascinating period of America's past.
While not much of the ship's hull remains, the rudder, parts of the paddlewheels, and steam engine are relatively intact. So too are thousands of artifacts which are beginning to emerge in wonderful conditionincluding the ship's bell and much of its cargo.
Carefully documenting and interpreting the site is a priority for the Odyssey group, which wants to share the ship's story with the public.
"This assemblage [of artifacts] tells us what the North was sending to the former rebel states to help rebuild their economy," Stemm explained. "We are seeing everything from pickle jars to dominoes, school slates to shoes a truly wonderful story to be told."
Technology is boosting the archaeological effort. The precision positioning capability of a new Sonardyne long baseline acoustic system enables the team to create geographically correct photo mosaics of the site at nearly real-time speed.
While the early successes are encouraging, the Odyssey team still has months of work ahead on the wreck site.
"We are literally picking up one coin at a time with a specially designed soft silicone limpet so that we do not mar the surface of these beautiful pieces," Stemm explained. "We have found that we can pick up about 1,000 coins per day, one at a time. So, if we find the 25,000 to 30,000 coins that research suggests we should expect, we will probably spend at least a month on [gold coin] recovery alone in one small portion of the site."
Delving further into the secrets to be found among the ship's cargo will add to both challenge and recovery time. "We will be excavating some really interesting areas of the site that promise to unveil fascinating glimpses into the cargo and passengers that were aboard the ship," Stemm said.
The variety of shapes and sizes make artifact-recovery more difficult than that of the coins, but it's well worth the effort. Even at this early stage, the doomed ship's cargo is raising some new questions about its Reconstruction-era mission. "As an entrepreneur I am fascinated by the collection," said Stemm. "It provides a glimpse of what Yankee entrepreneurs after the Civil War felt they could take to the south to market. You wonder what type of mark-up there must have been on pickles to justify valuable space in the cargo hold of the ship." Odyssey's Web site (www.shipwreck.net) is regularly updated with information from the shipwreck site, and visitors can sign up for e-mail alerts.
The expedition has been documented in detail since September by National Geographic. The two filmsfor broadcast on MSNBC and PBSare being produced by National Geographic Television & Film in association with JWM Productions, LLC.
"National Geographic has been here every step of the way covering the Odyssey Republic expedition," said Stemm. "We're excited about sharing the amazing story of the Republic and the in-depth coverage of our expedition with the public."
"National Geographic has a long history covering this kind of expedition," said David Royle, executive producer of National Geographic Ultimate Explorer and senior vice president for production at National Geographic Television and Film. "We have covered some of the classic Geographic expeditions like Titanic and Bismarck and we're uniquely qualified to tell the remarkable story of the Republic."