Friday, March 6, 2015

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in an uncommon archaeological survey, and wanted to share it with our FPAN Northeast blog followers.

Over the past several years, landowner Rodney Thomas located thousands of miscellaneous aircraft parts on his property near the town of Osteen (pronounced OH-steen) in Volusia County. At first, he admitted that he thought the pieces belonged to some antique farm equipment, but held the suspicion that perhaps they were something more.

All of the wreckage Rodney recovered thus far

Tag inside the artifact case at the museum 

After submitting some sample pieces to the nearby Deland Naval Air Station Museum, he learned that the artifacts actually belonged to a WWII-era SBD-5 Dauntless aircraft! After a little more research, they found that the plane crashed in 1944, but also discovered that the wreckage could belong to one of six crashes that occurred during that year.

Photograph of the SBD-5

Fast forward…..

George Schwarz, an underwater archaeologist with the Naval History and Heritage Command for the Navy found out about the wreck, and immediately took interest in investigating the site. According to George, roughly 95% of plane crashes are in the ocean, so it was an extremely unique and rare opportunity to investigate a wreck site of this era on solid ground.

George contacted local military personnel, veterans, archaeologists, a local metal detecting club, and others to put together a 3-day survey of the crash site.  There was even aid from a local forensic team and cadaver dogs, in case of buried human remains. The volunteer archaeologists included two people from the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Project—LAMP, right here in St. Augustine, two University of West Florida (UWF) graduate students, and myself (Ryan).

Day 1 took the form of a media day—it began with a briefing on the plane, the crash site, and essentially all the knowledge that had been obtained up to that point. Local news crews, some 50 veterans, and others were in attendance.  The audience also included local historians, archaeologists, and general enthusiasts of historic preservation.

Dr. George Schwarz, Navy Archaeologist, addresses locals and the media

After lunch on Day 1, we headed out to the site. There were more interviews with the media, and the cadaver dogs completed their initial survey of the property. One area sparked their interest (or should I say noses), but more on that later. Once the dogs were finished, the archaeologists began their work.

Addressing the media once more out at the site

The goal for the latter part of the day was simple—walk the transects that George had previously established on his GPS, and create waypoints along the way to “draw” the layout of the site, and to test whether the transects were easily traversable (we were in the woods after all!). Transects were placed 10 meters apart with the goal of uniform coverage of the site. Because the survey itself was being done by metal detectorists, any closer may have caused the machines to interfere with one other.

Walking transects, this one was easy!

Day 2 and Day 3 protocol were followed the same format. The metal detectorists would follow the transects (marked by orange flagging tape), locate and unearth metal objects, and then call upon the archaeologists to examine, photograph, and record each object individually.

Sample photograph, poor example, you shouldn't have alternating shadows! 

 In the evenings, the archaeologists processed the artifacts in the lab. When all was said and done on Day 3, several hundred additional metal objects had been documented and processed. Because there is additional analysis to be performed, however, it remains to be seen how many actually belonged to the aircraft.

Archaeologists documenting metal artifacts
As for the site that piqued the dogs’ interest, nothing ever came of it. The forensic team took numerous core samples and did not come up with any evidence for human remains, and adjacent test units did not yield any either.

Overall, the survey was a wonderful opportunity and experience. I got better with my GPS skills, and was able to partake in the search for a rare, land-based aircraft wreck site. Hopefully more details emerge soon, and all those involved will discover which plane went down, and who the pilots were.

Text and Images, Ryan Harke, FPAN Northeast Staff. 

2 Responses so far.

  1. Great summary of a really interesting project! I look forward to hearing the results!

  2. Bob Widner says:

    Ryan - I have documented more than 1,000 major aircraft accidents in Florida during WW II. The Osteen crash site is in my book published in 2008. The pilot was killed. I have located a nephew in Seattle but have not talked with him yet. The pilot's brother died this year at 92.
    I have ordered a copy of the accident report and should have it withing 3 weeks. My email address is Regards, Bob Widner

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