Matthew Palka regularly takes his seven-year-old daughter, Scarlett, on early-morning bike rides around parts of Nantucket. But on Saturday, she wanted to stay home and relax.
Left to explore on his own, Palka, 39, ventured out further than usual on the winding trails along the island’s southern shores. The decision led to his finding a hidden treasure that has the island buzzing with excitement, and trying to come up with theories about its origins: the remains of an old ship.
Palka said he stopped to take a break from his bike ride around 7 a.m. Suddenly, out in the distance, he spotted several wooden ribs protruding from the sand as the tide rolled in. Curious, he walked closer to inspect, only to confirm his hunch that beach erosion had exposed the vessel’s hull.
“I knew it was something big, like it was really old,” said Palka, a landscaper on the island who has done work at historic homes. “The beams were real consistent with the beams we’ve seen at some of the real old houses. It was crazy — the workmanship and all that.”
But even more startling, Palka said, was that just two weeks ago, “it was definitely not there.”
“Just white sandy beach,” he said of a picture he took on his phone from the same location.
Although not much is known about the ship, officials from the Egan Maritime Institute, a nonprofit that owns and operates the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum, are working closely with the town and the state’s Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources to learn more about its history.
“We would like to take a sample of the wood to carbon-date it so that we are able to get a better idea of the age of the wood and start researching that window,” said Carlisle Barron Jensen, the institute’s executive director, and Evan Schwanfelder, director of education and public programs, in a joint statement.
The town has also notified the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Nantucket Current reported.
Hundreds of ships passed by Nantucket on a daily basis throughout the 19th century, according to the institute’s website, but sailors were often caught by “unpredictable storms, dense fog, and strong currents.”
The combination of “treacherous shoals and inclement weather led to over 750 shipwrecks in the island’s waters,” and as a result, the area was often referred to as a “graveyard of the Atlantic.”
“Almost all the shipwrecks around our island were fishing boats or coastal schooners carrying mail, timber, coal, or live pigs,” Jensen and Schwanfelder said.
Erosion is typically the reason why wrecks “surface” on Nantucket beaches, but it happens “very rarely,” they said.
In recent years, the remnants of other ships have emerged from the sands of beaches across the state, including in Hull and Orleans. Even work at a construction site in the Seaport District in 2016 became the scene of an archeological discovery like Palka’s.
In Hull in 2015, officials said the natural shift of the ocean’s current and intense winter storms played a role in the remains being revealed.
It’s not just New England. A similar “mysterious object” found in Florida due to erosion caused by hurricanes set off speculation about its possible origins. Meanwhile, a slew of artifacts, hidden cities, and shipwrecks were exposed all over the world this summer due to extreme heat.
Jensen and Schwanfelder said a combination of factors — climate change, inclement weather, and erosion — probably contributed to the wreck emerging, with the storm over the weekend in particular leading to shifting sands.
“Portions of the site can be covered and uncovered in any given tide cycle or storm period,” Jensen and Schwanfelder said. “We may very well see more of it exposed if we get a strong winter storm cycle.”
Intrigued island residents flocked to social media this weekend to post about the fascinating discovery in Nantucket, saying erosion probably led to the wreckage’s unveiling. While one person said they came across it as early as Thanksgiving, others expressed amazement and said it should be preserved.
“Super cool find!! Looks very, very old. I believe some experts are attempting to date it,” one person wrote on Facebook. In response to a comment on the post, the person said the “wood looked scorched in places.”
Jensen and Schwanfelder said it’s difficult to determine the age of the ship and what type it is. But they have “good primary source records on the many shipwrecks around the island,” and plan to look “much deeper into these records.”
In the meantime, they’re asking residents to steer clear of the wreck and not disturb it.
Even though the wood from the ship eroded over time, Palka said both the construction of the beams, and the ironwork that connected them, had imperfections that “are consistent with handwork.”
“But it’s still perfect. It’s unreal. It was beautiful,” he said.
Palka said the “really cool” part about the wood being found — and attracting the attention that it has — is that town and state officials now plan to “check it out” to understand more.
“I’ve found crazy stuff on the beach many times, but nothing like this,” he said. “It’s very cool.”