BEAUFORT, North Carolina
(Reuters) -- Nearly three centuries ago, the notorious pirate Blackbeard ran aground in his ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, off what is now a North Carolina beach town.
This month, a crew of 13 heads out to sea each day, hoping for clear-enough weather to dive the 20 to 25 feet to the ocean bottom to excavate what they believe is Blackbeard's ship.
The team has found cannons, a bell, lead shot of all sizes, gold dust, pewter cups and medical devices, like a urethral syringe used to treat syphilis with mercury.
"A saying at the time was 'a night with Venus and a month with mercury.' And mercury doesn't even cure you," lead archeologist Chris Southerly said in an interview.
In past years, Southerly and his team did spot digs to map the debris field measuring 150 feet by 70 feet.
This year, divers are excavating the southern one-third of the site. They use PVC and aluminum pipe to measure five-foot squares and meticulously record where objects are found.
But, working 1 1/4 mile off North Carolina, there are problems that landlubber archeologists don't encounter.
"Once we excavate down 2, 3, 4 feet, because of the currents and sand, it falls back in," said Southerly.
This classic archeology focuses on one of the most unusual men of an unusual era -- Blackbeard.
His real name, which may have been Edward Teach or Thatch, is the subject of speculation, as are his birthplace and birth date. He knew how to navigate, but there is only one sample of what could be his writing -- a ship's log entry.
"We don't know how tall (he was), but he seems to be taller than average for that period. One account calls him a 'spare' man. He certainly had charisma," says Lindley Butler, a retired history professor of Rockingham Community College, in Wentworth, North Carolina. Butler specializes in North Carolina history.
There were accounts that he tied slow-burning cannon fuses to his long black hair before going into battle.
"With the fuses in his hair and heavily armed, he's a frightening person," says Butler, who added that pirates preferred to take ships without a shot. "There were some psychopathic pirates out there, but Blackbeard was not one of them. We have no evidence that Blackbeard ever murdered anyone or ever tortured anyone.
Blackbeard at first fought with the British as a privateer, a kind of legal pirate, attacking Spanish and French ships in the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 18th century.
With the war's end, Blackbeard and thousands of other unemployed sailors turned to piracy. His troop captured a French slaver called La Concorde in a brief skirmish in November 1717, says Butler.
He renamed the ship the Queen Anne's Revenge, which was probably 90 to 105 feet long. The band also had three smaller sloops, with about 400 men under arms.
In May 1718, Blackbeard's pirates sailed into the port of Charleston, South Carolina and, in a stunningly audacious move, blockaded the harbor. The ransom demanded, and paid, was a chest of medicine worth 400 pounds, says Butler.
"In a way, I guess it did sort of terrorize that port. Blackbeard at that time had a fleet of four vessels, with 60 cannons. This was the most powerful fleet in this hemisphere at this time," says Butler.
Shortly after terrorizing Charlestown, Blackbeard lost his lead ship, running the Queen Anne's Revenge aground on one of the many shifting sandbars off North Carolina, says Butler.
After the wreck the governor granted him a royal pardon, and Blackbeard went into at least semi-retirement in June 1718, spending chunks of time in Ocracoke, a barrier island off North Carolina.
But Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood was apparently unconvinced Blackbeard had actually given up pirating.
"Gov. Spotswood was having nightmares about this pirate sitting down here in North Carolina," says Butler.
He sent troops to find Blackbeard, and the two sides battled it out on November 21, 1718 on tiny Ocracoke.
Blackbeard was killed in ferocious fighting. Casualty figures vary but at least eight other pirates were killed, and eight British seamen. Blackbeard's head was cut off and stuck on a stake. His body was tossed overboard.
Blackbeard was probably in his 30s when he was killed, and had been a pirate captain for just about a year. During that time, his force had taken a town hostage and captured 40 ships.
"It's astonishing that he's had such an iconic role in such short a time. It's like a comet almost," says Butler.
With so little known about Blackbeard from primary sources, perhaps the best chance to get to know Blackbeard is through the wreck of the ship believed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge.
Archeologists on the dig, which runs from October 2 to November 9, have found a ship's bell from 1705, a 1713 cannon and stemware that was made made between 1714 and 1720.
"All of the artifacts are in the right time frame," said Southerly, who estimated that excavating the entire ship would take three to 3 1/2 years.
Sailors tend to have few belongings, maybe extra clothes, a pipe, a knife and a few other things. Few of these items have been found.
"The lack of personal effects of what we're finding so far is one of the interesting questions for us," he said. "We're trying to get back to the people."