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Digging for Darwin's Ship

27 February 2004 (All day)
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Lost no more. Robert Prescott and colleagues think they've found the HMS Beagle.

After 130 years of mystery, one of the most famous ships in the history of science may have been discovered 5 meters beneath an English marsh. In the 1830s, the HMS Beagle carried a youthful Charles Darwin to the Galápagos Islands and elsewhere around the globe, as he collected evidence for and mulled his theory of natural selection.

Now, Maritime historian Robert Prescott of the University of St. Andrews, U.K., and his team have tracked down the buried remains of a ship at the likely final resting place of the Beagle--an undisclosed backwater in coastal Essex, 90-odd kilometers from London. The search is detailed in a BBC documentary to be aired this Saturday in the U.K.

To hunt for the ship Prescott teamed up with other researchers, including Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist and Darwin enthusiast at the Open University in Milton Keynes. (Pillinger named the apparently doomed Beagle 2 Mars Lander after Darwin's ship, in honor of the vessel's contribution to science.) The team sleuthed its way through old naval, Coast Guard, and other records. They also used 19th century maps, archaeological surveys, and an abandoned anchor as clues to locate the disused dock where the Beagle was berthed for the last 20 years of her life. The final written records of her existence note that she was used as a watch vessel to spy on coastal smugglers using backwaters to avoid duties on lace, tobacco, brandy, and other goods from the continent. It was at this spot in 1870 that the researchers believe the Beagle was sold and dismantled. Using ground-penetrating radar, they have found substantial pieces of a ship that fit the Beagle's description. It is too early to say whether the best way to preserve the wreck would be to dig her up, says Prescott.

"All the circumstantial evidence points toward this being the Beagle," comments Robert Warren, curator at the National Maritime Museum in London. Proving the hull has the correct dimensions--the ship was just over 27 meters long--and carbon dating the wood would help confirm the find, he says. "Finding the remains of the ship which took such remarkable men as Darwin ... around the world makes me feel excited and moved," says Steve Laurie, who looks after a collection of artifacts from the Beagle at the University of Cambridge's Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. "We'd love to have part of the ship in the Sedgwick Museum," he adds.

Related site
The Sedgwick Museum's Darwin collection