Shipwreck's Story 'Is There in the Tree Rings'

Tree ring data suggests it's the Dolphin, which was lost in 1859
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 31, 2022 12:55 PM CDT
Tree Ring Data May Have Solved Mystery of Missing Ship
A stock photo of tree rings.   (Getty Images / Konstantin Karpov)

"For me, the story is there in the tree rings." That's the takeaway of a dendrochronologist—an expert in dating events and artifacts from tree rings—who was part of a team that used tree ring data from a shipwreck found in Argentina in 2004 to determine it is very likely the Dolphin, a Rhode Island whaling ship lost in 1859. "I cannot say with a hundred percent certainty, but analysis of the tree rings indicates it is very likely that this is the ship," says lead study author Ignacio Mundo with just a tad less certainty. Gizmodo reports samples of timbers taken from the wreckage by chainsaw were checked against the North American Drought Atlas, which has tree-ring data on some 30,000 trees over a 2,000-year period.

It indicated the wood was felled in New England and the southeastern US no later than 1849; construction began on the Dolphin in August 1850, and over the next nine years it sailed to distant lands like the Seychelles, Zanzibar, and Australia. The ship's ribs, hull, and wooden nails were made of white oak, yellow pine, and black locust, respectively, all of which are found in the eastern US. Still, Gizmodo points out there's "no smoking gun for the wreck's identity," though a press release notes artifacts found near the wreck also pointed to the possibility it was a whaling ship. The study published in Dendrochronologia refers to "highly significant correlations" but does not state with certainty that it's the Dolphin; a unique artifact tied to the ship would be needed to make that claim.

But Mukund Rao, that dendrochronologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Tree Ring Lab, is willing to go a little further. "The archaeologists are more conservative—they prefer a slightly higher standard, and I don't blame them. It’s true we don’t have something like the ship’s bell. But for me, the story is there in the tree rings." The study does make one claim though: "To our knowledge, our study pioneered the use of dendrochronological methods for dating and establishing the provenance of a whaler's remains on the Atlantic coast of South America and encourages the feasibility for future dendroarchaeological research based on the large number of wooden shipwrecks that occurred in the region." (More archaeology stories.)

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