Pieces of eight. Doubloons. Gold bars. Rocks studded with Columbian emeralds.
Consider this your map to finding enough treasure to turn the heads of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. All of these riches from shipwrecks have washed up on Southern Delaware's beaches and others along the Delmarva Peninsula.
Whether you head for Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island or more southerly shore points including Ocean City, Md., you can look for sea shells, beach glass and driftwood. But a-a-argh, mateys! You'd be wise to keep your eyes open for sunken treasure, too!
"People think of shipwrecks in Florida and the Caribbean, but they forget that Philadelphia was the largest port in early America," says Dale Clifton Jr., the museum's director. "Many ships from around the world headed to the mouth of the Delaware Bay to reach Philadelphia -- and many didn't make it."
Pick up a map of shipwrecks along the coast, available at souvenir shops, and you'll see hundreds of them in this area.
"Some went down in bad weather, hit shoals or sank after enemy encounters. Still others fell victim to regular pirates like Blackbeard or land pirates called moon cussers. Common along the Delmarva Peninsula, the moon cussers tricked sea captains into coming too close to shore by lighting fires in barrels to mimic lighthouse beams," Clifton explains.
You could get lucky if you're on the beach after a strong Nor'easter has removed major sand. Toting a metal detector increases your odds. But schooling yourself on where shipwrecks are, how currents work and what to look for on the beach makes your chances even better.
"Much more than luck goes into making significant finds," warns Clifton who generously offers tips to museum visitors.
"Gold is the only metal that looks the same as it did when it went down. Other items become encrusted with minerals and sea life over hundreds of years and look like rocks," Clifton warns. "But X-rays can reveal some surprising contents." The museum's electrolysis display shows how minerals are removed to free the treasures inside.
"Just last year, a little boy who visited here came back with 10 rocks he'd found. Nine were nothing unusual. But the tenth contained a brass shoe buckle, a coin and a ring," Clifton says.
He adds, "Last season, a woman found seven Spanish gold coins from the 1730s on Ocean City's 72nd Street beach."
Your education begins at the museum on the second floor of touristy Sea Shell City. You'll find an amazing display of precious metals, jewelry, navigational tools and weapons as well as dishes, flatware, a child's shoe and a porcelain doll's head. Although the large room is full, it contains only 10 percent of Clifton's 35-year collection of treasures found along the Delmarva and other parts of the world. Right now, he's working four shipwrecks and has 16 more on the back burner, mostly from New Jersey to North Carolina.
You'll see artifacts he recovered from the Faithful Steward, which sank in shallow water near Indian River Inlet in 1785 and has given up so many coins that the nearby stretch of sand is called Coin Beach. You'll see stacks of dishes from the China Wreck off Cape Henlopen in 1891.
Other cases contain artifacts from the White Star Line's RMS Republic, which sank in 1909 after being rammed in the fog off Nantucket Island. Three years later, White Star's Titanic would set off on its maiden voyage. Its fate is described by a framed newspaper in Clifton's museum -- an issue of The Morning Call!
Don't miss the incredible riches from the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha off Key West, including the 10.5-foot-long gold chain destined for a Spanish queen. It's valued at $750,000.
If Clifton's collection isn't enough to make you walk Delmarva beaches more carefully, stop at the Treasures of the Sea Exhibit at Delaware Technical & Community College in Georgetown to see more Atocha artifacts. And don't miss the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, which tells the story of two more Delaware shipwrecks: the DeBraak, which capsized and sank off Cape Henlopen in 1796, and the Roosevelt Inlet Shipwreck, believed to have sunk in 1774 with a cargo of European trade goods (pottery and wine).
Visitors walking the Lewes Beach from Roosevelt Inlet to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal have found relics from the inlet shipwreck. Twenty percent of it was chewed up by a dredge that was mining sand for a beach reclamation project, before officials realized it was destroying a shipwreck.
DAY TRIPS: SEARCHING FOR TREASURE