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The Science of Shipwrecks

Exploring Cultural History at Sea

On the eve of 1863, the USS Monitor sank in a storm off the North Carolina coast.

Scuba diver explores a ship at the bottom of the ocean
USS Monitor photo courtesy of NOAA

Sixteen of her 62 sailors perished. Surgeon Grenville Weeks lost three fingers and the use of his right arm after becoming wedged between two lifeboats. “We watched from the deck of the Rhode Island [ Monitor’s supply ship] the lonely light upon the Monitor’s turret,” he recalled in The Atlantic Monthly . “A hundred times we thought it had gone forever, a hundred times it reappeared—till, at last, it sank, and we saw it no more.” 

The sinking of the Monitor is one highlight of The Science of Shipwrecks, a Renée Crown University Honors Program course taught by Cathryn Newton, Professor of Interdisciplinary Sciences and a member of the Earth sciences faculty. Newton traces her connection to the Monitor to 1973, when, as a 16-year-old Duke sophomore, she was one of 15 scientists led by her father—Duke’s renowned oceanographer John G. Newton—who discovered the Monitor off the Outer Banks.

This undergraduate discovery created a lifelong fascination with shipwrecks, and served as the inspiration for her honors course on oceans and shipwrecks, from antiquity to modern day, through an interdisciplinary lens. “A shipwreck can be understood as a large fossil that sinks to the bottom of the sea, much as a deceased whale becomes part of the fossil record,” says Newton, a special advisor to the Chancellor and Provost for faculty engagement, and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences . “Our course uses ocean processes and marine technology to explore cultural history.”

A shipwreck can be understood as a large fossil that sinks to the bottom of the sea...

—Cathryn Newton

In addition to researching two maritime tragedies in detail, students travel to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where they have a hands-on research experience at sea. “Standing on the deck of a ship makes you think differently,” Newton says. “For a weekend, students experience the ocean as an oceanographer does. They’re never the same afterward.”  

Stanislav Nedzelskyi ’17, an architecture major, describes shipwrecks as “footprints in the sands of time” that provide a glimpse of the past. “Dr. Newton is a sage, a warden of knowledge,” he says. “Every day with her is like a page from an illuminated manuscript.” 

Newton attributes the success of the course, launched in 2010, to strategic partnerships with Woods Hole and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the vision and generosity of the Crown family, and the breadth and depth of her students. She also says there is no shortage of material, with approximately three million wrecks—some, thousands of years old—spread across the ocean floor. In fact, Newton created a searchable database of 2,000 ships that have sunk off the North Carolina coast since the 1500s. Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus at Duke who is an expert on beachfront erosion, considers Newton a “genius” with data. “She uses shipwrecks to teach us about humanity,” he says.

And intersectionality, adds Brandon Mixson ’17. A double major in psychology and writing and rhetoric, he didn’t know what to expect from the course. Newton won him over immediately. “I learned a lot about the untold aspects of shipwrecks—the legalities, the cultures, and the tragedies that often are encased within them,” he says. 

Just after her experience in the course, biology major Cynthia Harris ’18 traveled with Newton to Mallows Bay on the Potomac River, an area teeming with historic shipwrecks that Newton is helping turn into a national maritime sanctuary. “It was an incredible experience,” says the aspiring marine biologist. “What’s even more incredible is that Dr. Newton has asked me to help her with the project.”

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .

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