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1,000 Fathoms Down

In the Gulf of Mexico, archaeologists believe they have identified a nineteenth-century whaling ship crewed by a diverse group of New Englanders


Monday, September 12, 2022

Whaleship PrintThe first few weeks of May 1836 were pleasant ones for the whaling brig Industry. Based in Westport, Massachusetts, the two-masted, 64-foot-long ship had been built in 1815 and launched the next year. Now, two decades into her career, Industry and her crew of 15 men had been out for just over a year hunting sperm whales as far east as the Azores and as far south as the Caribbean. They had built up a store of several hundred barrels of sperm whale oil and were making their way back home when they detoured into the Gulf of Mexico in hopes of topping up their prized cargo.


Before the widespread availability of petroleum, sperm whale oil was a valuable commodity. It burned clearly and brightly without smoking, making it ideal for illuminating homes and lighthouses. It was a fine lubricant even at very high temperatures, and was used to oil timepieces, scientific instruments, and industrial machinery. In addition, spermaceti, a waxy substance harvested from sperm whales’ heads, was used to produce the brightest, cleanest-burning candles. And ambergris, an odoriferous material found in some sperm whales’ bowels, was coveted as an ingredient in perfume and worth its weight in gold. “If you were good at killing whales, then you had the ability to make cash,” says Michael Dyer, curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “Anyone who participated in the whaling trade in the early nineteenth century could stand to do quite well at it.”


Whaleship MapIn the Gulf, Industry enjoyed a stretch of fine weather with steady winds and encountered a fellow Westport whaling brig, Elizabeth. The two ships “mated,” in the nautical parlance, and sailed in close proximity for several days. They were a few miles apart when a vicious squall set in on the evening of May 26. “The thunder rolled heavily and in the most terrific tones,” reports a June 20, 1836, article in the New-Bedford Gazette & Courier. “The lightnings flashed vividly and constantly in every direction during the night.”


Industry got the worst of it. She was knocked on her side by the wind and waves, and nearly capsized. Both her masts snapped, and all but one of the small boats the crew used to pursue whales were washed away. The only thing keeping her afloat was the buoyancy provided by her precious store of sperm whale oil. The crew piled into their one remaining boat and rowed to Elizabeth, which took them in and sailed back to Westport. Around a week later, a Nantucket-based whaler named Harmony came upon the abandoned Industry and salvaged 230 of her 310 barrels of oil, along with valuable equipment including parts of her sails and rigging, her anchor cable, and at least one of her anchors. No longer buoyed by her full store of oil, Industry slipped under the water and began to drift to the seafloor. Of some 214 whaling ships known to have worked in the Gulf of Mexico between 1788 and 1878, Industry is the only one known to have sunk there.


During a 2011 sonar survey of a stretch of the Gulf of Mexico slated for petroleum exploration, what appeared to be a shipwreck was detected around 70 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River and reported to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Six years later, a test of an autonomous underwater vehicle captured images of the wreck, which lies 6,000 feet below the surface. The images showed features—in particular, what appeared to be a tryworks, or hearth used to render whale blubber into oil, and anchors of a style dating to the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century—that suggested the wreck might be that of a whaling vessel from the early nineteenth century. In February 2022, a team led by marine archaeologists James Delgado and Michael Brennan of the archaeological firm SEARCH and Scott Sorset of BOEM monitored footage from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration remotely operated vehicle (ROV) as it spent several hours thoroughly documenting the wreck.

Whaleship Cuffe Sillo Intro
A Maritime Magnate

Industry Overseas Highway
Passage to Freedom


Rediscovering Egypt's Golden Dynasty

How King Tutankhamun’s family forever changed the land of the Nile


Monday, August 22, 2022

Egypt Thebes Amenhotep III StatuesThe banks of the Nile River in modern-day Luxor are strewn with so many ruins of Egypt’s illustrious past that the area is sometimes called the world’s largest open-air museum. Luxor was once ancient Thebes, the erstwhile capital of Egypt, and for more than 1,000 years, the pharaohs erected temples, monuments, and sculptures there as testaments to their power, wealth, and piety. The New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.), which many scholars believe was the cultural and artistic zenith of Egyptian civilization, was an especially prolific period. Among the archaeological sites on the Nile’s east bank are two of the largest and most important temples in all of Egypt, the Karnak Temple, called the “most selected of places” by ancient Egyptians, and the Luxor Temple, known to them as the “southern sanctuary.” These two massive religious complexes, both of which celebrated the holy Theban trinity of Amun-Ra, the greatest of gods, his consort Mut, and their son Khonsu, still boast reminders of their former glory—ornate columns, giant statues, soaring obelisks, and expertly carved reliefs. The complexes were connected by an almost two-mile-long grand processional way known as the Avenue of Sphinxes, lined with more than 600 ram-headed statues and sphinxes carved in stone.


Egypt MapThe most prominent archaeological remnants on the west bank, an area known to scholars as the “city of the dead,” are a group of mortuary temples built by some of the New Kingdom’s most notable rulers, including Hatshepsut (r. ca. 1479–1458 B.C.), Ramesses II (r. ca. 1279–1213 B.C.), and Ramesses III (r. ca. 1184–1153 B.C.). Mortuary or funerary temples were not where pharaohs were entombed, but where they were commemorated and worshipped for eternity after their deaths, alongside other Egyptian gods. Dwarfing all these complexes was the one known to have been built by Amenhotep III (r. ca. 1390–1352 B.C.).


Amenhotep III presided over Egypt during an unprecedented time that is often referred to as the Egyptian Golden Age. The pharaoh initiated an extraordinary building campaign that spurred urban growth in his capital of Thebes. He commissioned monumental structures such as his mortuary temple, the scale of which is only just beginning to be understood as a result of archaeological research over the past two decades. The picture of Amenhotep III’s “golden” Thebes has only been enhanced by the recent chance discovery of a previously unknown city built during his reign, now buried amid the monuments of the west bank. Some archaeologists consider this city one of the most important discoveries of the past century in Egypt. The remnants of both the temple and the city now stand as potent reminders of an era of peace and prosperity that preceded one of the most tumultuous periods in Egyptian history.