Diving into the Wreck of Vicar of Bray

One of the world’s great ship graveyards lies at the bottom of the world, in the remote Falkland Islands.

Known to maritime aficionados since the 1930s, the Falklands, and in particular Stanley Harbor,

were home to a well-preserved collection of near-intact wooden ships from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The maritime preservation community began to pay attention with increasing interest in the 1960s to the Falkland hulks.

They were featured in a 1980 documentary film,

The Ghosts of Cape Horn, and numerous articles, books, and reports by leading figures in American maritime preservation,

such as Karl Kortum, Peter Throckmorton, and Peter Stanford.

The reports, including a number in early issues of Sea History,

spoke of campaigns—both successful and failed—to retrieve some of the hulks for restoration as museum vessels far from the Falklands’ shores.

Diving into the Wreck of Vicar of Bray Among the ships that were of high interest was Vicar of Bray.

Long desired by the San Francisco Maritime Museum as the last vessel left from the California Gold Rush (above the water and not buried in a landfill),

throughout the 1970s and 1980s Kortum sought to bring it to San Francisco for restoration and display.

That did not happen, and the stout old barque gradually decayed. In 2016, word came that the hull was in danger of imminent collapse from friend and fellow shipwreck researcher George Belcher of San Francisco,

who had visited the Falklands and seen Vicar in its berth at Goose Green.

Hearing this, we approached the National Geographic Society for support, and with a grant from the NGS/Waitt Grants Program,

we joined together with George to journey to the Falklands and document how Vicar of Bray was undergoing a protracted, slow “death” in its sub-Antarctic environment.

Artifacts don’t really die, rather, they transition into something else. As archaeologists, we are keenly interested in increasing our knowledge of this transformation process.

This exploration of how this happens in an isolated, cold, arid and yet marine environment was something unique.

We knew it would add to our understanding of not only how Vicar of Bray was built, but also what its future—and that of other wrecks in such environments—will be.

As a former maritime museum director, one of us was particularly interested in what this last look at Vicar of Bray meant in terms of what society may choose to do to save or preserve such sites.

While the California Gold Rush context of the vessel is,

of course, important, we also sought to place it within the context of its post-sailing career as a hulk,

Diving into the Wreck of Vicar of Bray within the confines of the archaeology of abandonment and reuse in the ship graveyard of the Falkland Islands.

We examined the ship as part of a larger maritime cultural landscape, incorporated not only in its immediate environment,

but also the larger landscape that is the southern tip of South America and its associated islands.

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