The dotted line denotes the margins of old Port Royal, that "wicked city" that now lies partially submerged. All images on this page courtesy of Donny L. Hamilton, Institute of Nautical Archeology.   aerial view of Port Royal, Jamaica

Sin city sunk under sea
One of the advantages of marine or nautical archeology is that, in many instances, catastrophic events send a ship or its cargo to the bottom, freezing a moment in time. As one archeologist phrases it, in shipwrecks -- and mammoth mud slides and volcanoes -- "people haven't had time to clean up." That may be bad luck for the victims. But it's a bona fide bonanza for archeologists.

One such catastrophe that has helped nautical archeologists was the earthquake that destroyed part of the city of Port Royal, Jamaica. Once known as the "Wickedest City on Earth" for its sheer concentration of pirates, prostitutes and rum, Port Royal is now famous for another reason: "It is the only sunken city in the New World," according to Donny L. Hamilton of Texas A&M University's Institute of Nautical Archeology.



Port Royal began its watery journey to the Academy Awards of nautical archeology on the morning of June 7, 1692, when, in a matter of minutes, a massive earthquake sent nearly 33 acres of the city -- buildings, streets, houses, and their contents and occupants -- careening into Kingston Harbor. Today, that underwater metropolis encompasses roughly 13 acres, at depths ranging from a few inches to 40 feet.

For nearly ten years, Hamilton and his colleagues, many of them students, explored the buildings of this sunken colonial city, cataloging the artifacts and structures, encountering the remains of the human victims, and sorting through the detritus of everyday life.

"To me, it's like walking through your home town," explains Hamilton. "I probably know more about these people who lived in 1692 in Port Royal than I do about my next door neighbor."

Excavating a sunken city: Brick paving and building walls.

Putting a face on disaster
Indeed, Hamilton has had the good fortune to get to know many of the colonial residents of Port Royal because the English, even 300 years ago, were prodigious bureaucrats, compiling mountains of documents -- wills, lawsuits, deeds, commissions, commercial records -- that bring to life the occupants of the now-submerged metropolis of Port Royal.

Take some pewter (defined) plates Hamilton's team found in two buildings. The plates bore an unknown "touch mark" (defined) that was an invaluable clue to the identity of their maker, a fellow by the name of Simon Benning. Benning's will and other documents, subsequently unearthed in England, provided an intriguing record of his family. It is highly unusual, to say the least, to have a written portrait of a craftsman whose work was found in an archeological excavation.

Port Royal, says Hamilton, belongs to an elite group of archeological sites that includes Pompeii and Herculaneum, Roman towns frozen in time by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. These sites are undisturbed; unlike most terrestrial sites, the archeologist is not bothered by debris from intervening human occupations. In submerged Port Royal, furniture, tableware, shoes, cooking implements, tools and anything else that might have been tucked away in a home or business remain largely in place.

The earthquake, Hamilton told The Why Files, "sealed in everything that was going on at 11:43 a.m. on June 7, 1692." The precise time is known because a pocket watch, its hands frozen at the instant of disaster, long before waterproof watches, was recovered during some of the first excavations of the site in 1960 by Edwin Link. The pinpointing in time of the disaster, says Hamilton, was a first for archeology.

"We are getting a glimpse of everyday life at a given point in time," Hamilton says, noting that while pieces of eight and royal treasure grab the public spotlight, what truly interests scholars is how the average citizenry lived, worked and played. A site like Port Royal is where the archeologist really "finds out about the ins and outs of everyday life."

Even so, some catastrophic sites have the feel of kings.

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