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Off the North Carolina coast, pirate treasure of a different sort

  • Blackbeard Queen Annes Revenge.jpg

    An image of Blackbeard first published in the 1700s. (N.C. Department of Cultural Resources)

  • Blackbeard Queen Annes Revenge hull.tif

  • Blackbeard Queen Annes Revenge Greyout.jpg

    A model of the Queen Annes Revenge. (N.C. Department of Cultural Resources)

  • Blackbeard Queen Annes Revenge Mus Mar.jpg

    The Queen Annes Revenge is of French origin, and of the frigate class of vessel. (N.C. Department of Cultural Resources)

Sunken treasure lies 25 feet beneath the sea off North Carolina, where archaeologists are probing the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge -- the flagship in the dread pirate Blackbeard’s flotilla.

But this treasure won’t sparkle and gleam, and it definitely isn’t locked in a dead man’s chest.

“The project calls for the recovery of all the materials. Everything. All the weapons, all the bits of the ship, all the personal items. Everything. If it’s down there, it’s coming up,” project leader Billy Ray Morris told FoxNews.com on Wednesday.

Morris and a group of 14 marine archaeologists, technicians and restoration experts from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources believe the Queen Anne's Revenge itself is a treasure trove, a unique repository of history from centuries ago. They plan to salvage the entire remains of the pirate ship by 2014. Cannon by cannon, plank by plank.

'We’ve got the plates they ate off. We’ve got bones with butcher’s marks.'

- Project director Billy Ray Morris

“I’ve worked on shipwrecks all around the world, and this is one of the coolest,” Morris said.

Pulled from the ocean's chemical stew, the artifacts are taken to a lab in Greenville, where it may take as much as a decade to leach out 300 years worth of salt and sea, preparing the ship for the final phase of its life out of the water. More than 280,000 such artifacts have already been recovered; many are Many artifacts are displayed in an exhibit at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. It will ultimately provide a detailed look at 18th century life, information Morris said is hard to come by.

“It’s not like these guys left their memoirs," he told FoxNews.com. "We’re looking at the stuff that these guys used on a daily basis.”

The Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground in Beaufort in June 1718, on the western side of the channel. Morris said the ship was most likely intentionally grounded; historical documentation indicates Blackbeard wanted to downsize his flotilla of four ships -- and the crew that sailed on them.

“So there would be fewer guys he had to split the goodies with,” Morris said.

Intersal, Inc., a private research firm, discovered the site in late 1996. The Department of Cultural Resources has been working it ever since, bit by bit. In 2009, they recovered the ship's anchor. The interest is driven in part because this pirate ship was not always a pirate ship: Queen Anne’s Revenge was built as a privateer, then served as a slave ship before coming under Blackbeard’s command.

“We’re going to have a magnificent collection,” Morris told FoxNews.com. “We’ve got the plates they ate off. We’ve got bones with butcher’s marks.”

A treasure chest is an unlikely find in the wreckage: When you sink your own pirate ship, you pull the loot off it first. But what does exist, 300 years after the ship was abandoned in shallow waters, will be of incalculable value for future scholars, Morris said. There is navigation equipment, weaponry, ceramics, glass wear, personal effects, material from the African slave trade and more. These items often are locked in a concrete like crust of sand, shells and marine life that must be removed during the conservation process.

But first, bits of the ship itself.

“Right now I’m working on anchors and ballast and some exterior planking,” Morris said.

A mid-June dive ended with the recovery of two 8-foot long cannons; 15 have been recovered to date, and six other cannons still await recovery. The weather Tuesday was unfit for diving, however, even in the shallow waters where the Queen Anne’s Revenge lies.

“In shallow water, 6-foot swells will throw you all over on the bottom and preclude doing any sort of work,” Morris told FoxNews.com.

“This is a really cool wreck,” he said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.