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Two Research Teams Face Off Over the Wreck of HMB Endeavour

endeavour
Reproduced plans for Endeavour (Australian National Maritime Museum)

Published Feb 3, 2022 9:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

The head of the Australian National Maritime Museum announced Wednesday that he believes his team has identified the wreck of the famed sailing vessel HM Bark Endeavour, which carried Capt. James Cook and his crew on their voyage of exploration to Australia and New Zealand. However, the museum's American partners have pushed back, calling the announcement "premature."

The Australian team has not found the ship's bell, or any other object that would conclusively link site number RI-2394 to Endeavour - but "the preponderance of evidence" suggests that this particular wreck is indeed the long-sought historic ship, said Kieran Hosty, a marine archaeologist with the museum. "We've found lots of things that tick the box for it to be Endeavour, and nothing on the site that says it's not," he said. 

In particular, the dimensions of the ship's scantlings are nearly identical to the dimensions on historical shipyard plans, including unique joinery elements at the vessel's stem, Hosty said. 

After Cook's voyages ended, Endeavour was sold and renamed Lord Sandwich, and historians believe that she saw service as a British prison ship during the American Revolutionary War. In 1778, she was present for the siege of Newport, Rhode Island, and the Royal Navy intentionally scuttled her and four other ships in order to prevent vessels from sailing into the harbor. This might explain why so few objects have been found at the wreck site, the museum's archaeologists believe. 

"Anything that was of value would have been stripped out of that ship before it was sunk," said Dr, James Hunter, an archaeologist with the museum. "What has been recovered up to this point is indicative of an 18th-century timeframe."

Based on this evidence, Kevin Sumption, Director and CEO of the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), decided to announce Wednesday that the Endeavour has been found. The decision did not sit well with the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), the lead institution for the wreck site. 

"The ANMM announcement today is a breach of the contract between RIMAP and the ANMM for the conduct of this research and how its results are to be shared with the public," said Dr. Kathy Abbass, the head of the American team. "What we see on the shipwreck site under study is consistent with what might be expected of the Endeavour, but there has been no indisputable data found to prove the site is that iconic vessel."

The ANMM dismissed Abbass' criticism. "She can have her opinion and we've got ours," the spokesperson told the Daily Mail. "We don't believe we are in breach of contract."

ANMM's team plans to put out a paper on their research for peer review soon, "and so further insights will be made as happens with all archaeological projects," the spokesperson said.