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Eighteenth-Century Merchant Ship Interiors

Mary Ann Renner
Thesis: December 1987
Chair: Hamilton

Despite the importance of shipping in the eighteenth century, little information is available concerning the interior furnishings and fittings of merchant vessels. However, from this study of ships' plans, models, artwork and archaeology, details of merchant ship interiors are emerging.

Because most shipwrecks are poorly preserved, nautical archaeology has contributed little to the study of ships' interiors. However, the Yorktown Shipwreck Archaeological Project (YSAP), a full-time research project of the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks, is providing an extraordinary opportunity to study ship interiors.

The YSAP has located nine shipwrecks from the Battle of Yorktown, 1781, the last major battle of the American Revolution. Seven of the wrecks are believed to be merchant vessels scuttled by Cornwallis as a defensive maneuver.

Two of the scuttled vessels, 44YO85 and 44YO12, were test-excavated and provided some information on interior construction, especially of storage areas. The best preserved of the Yorktown shipwrecks, 44YO88, is currently being excavated. To alleviate hostile river conditions and thus improve the quality of excavation and recording, YO88 has been enclosed in a steel cofferdam.

YO88 is a merchant vessel measuring 75 x 23 feet and is believed to have been built as a collier. Excavation of the stern of YO88 is revealing stylish and well-made hardware, furniture, decorative features and interior components. Items such as tongue-and-groove paneling, a window and a china cupboard chow the opulence of the officers' quarters. The cupboard, which has cut-out shelves, also illustrates how common commodities were adapted to shipboard use.

In the bow of YO88, a lack of artifacts related to crewmen reflects the low status afforded these men. Hundreds of barrel pieces have been excavated from the bow and midships areas and are providing details of stowage as well as a wealth of information on eighteenth-century cooperage. Storage information in also emerging from the bulkhead construction of YO88.

Although the excavation of YO88 is not yet complete, this study is revealing detailed information on the construction of ship interiors as well as the activities which took place there. Additionally, the work constitutes an important data base for future comparative studies.

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