The state has quietly decided that the cannon-laden shipwreck just off Fort Macon is absolutely that of Blackbeard the pirate's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, ending 15 years of official uncertainty.
No more caveats, not in news releases, scholarly presentations by state archaeologists or on museum exhibits about the ship like that which opens today at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
"We have now changed our position, and we are quite categorically saying that it's the Queen Anne's Revenge," said Jeffrey Crow, deputy secretary for the Office of Archives and History of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which oversees the efforts to recover and display the remains of the ship.
After so many years of historical research and the recovery and analysis of tens of thousands of artifacts, the body of evidence was overwhelming and convincing, said Crow, who had been one of the main voices urging caution against declaring a positive identification too early.
Crow said he had believed for years that it was the Queen Anne's Revenge. Professionalism as a historian, though, dictated caution, despite arguments from supporters of the recovery project that not only was the evidence good enough, but that a firm identification would make it easier to win ongoing state funding for the effort.
From the beginning, archaeologists on the project have had to piece together funding from a hodgepodge of sources. The legislature has never regularly funded their work, despite the huge tourism potential of such an old wreck even if the ship wasn't Blackbeard's, and despite the risk that a large storm could damage the site, which had been covered by a protective blanket of sand for much of its history.
The positive identification may make it easier to get private money needed to raise the rest of the ship and artifacts by the target date of late 2013 - $100,000 for each of the next three years. But the decision wasn't about money, Crow said, it was about overwhelming evidence.
Finally tipping the scales, he said, was the acceptance of a paper flatly declaring the identity of the wreck by the respected scholarly journal "Historical Archaeology." The paper, written by Mark Wilde-Ramsing, a deputy state archaeologist and head of the Queen Anne's Revenge project, and Charles Ewen of the anthropology faculty at East Carolina University, is expected to be published later this year or early in 2012.
It cited key facts such as the location, historical accounts, dates on various artifacts and dates and places of origin that can be extrapolated from others with known makers or periods of manufacture.
"In summary, historical, archaeological, and scientific research conducted on (the wreck) provides a large body of evidence upon which to make a case - a case beyond reasonable doubt - that the site represents the remains of Blackbeard's flagship," the paper concludes.
As in murder trials, Wilde-Ramsing said, sometimes there isn't direct proof, but the body of circumstantial evidence is so overwhelming that a jury can convict without any doubt.
Della Scott-Ireton, the associate editor of the historical journal who worked with the paper, and herself a maritime archaeologist, said it was convincing.
"They've been very conservative, and I think correctly so," Scott-Ireton said. "If they came out and made this kind of assertion too early and were proven wrong, there would be huge publicity."
The Queen Anne's Revenge, a captured French slave ship, was part of a four-vessel pirate flotilla when it ran aground in 1718 beside the inlet leading to Beaufort and was abandoned. The wreck was found a little more than a mile off the beach in 1996 by Intersal, a private research company.
The location precisely matched historical accounts of the grounding, and the ship appeared to be the right vintage and size and was armed to an unusual degree. And from the first, the artifacts brought up fit the origins of the ship, the crew and the places it was known to have visited.
Many of the state and university researchers studying the wreckage and helping bring it ashore have privately been convinced for more than a decade that they had the right ship.
But without direct proof, such as an artifact bearing the name of the ship, and no compelling reason to rush judgment, state officials insisted that official mentions of the project use the delicate and slightly awkward qualifier "the ship believed to be" before "the Queen Anne's Revenge."
The identity of the ship seemed to grow shakier, at least in the public's mind, in 2005 when three maritime archaeologists, including the former conservator for the project, published a scholarly article arguing that the state was too eager to link the ship to Blackbeard, that the proof wasn't strong enough.
The researchers on the project kept on recovering and analyzing artifacts, thousands of them, and eventually the evidence was compelling enough, Wilde-Ramsing said.
No doubt in exhibit
The certainty of the Queen Anne's Revenge is evident in the new exhibit that opens today at the N.C. Maritime Museum, just a couple of miles from the wreck site.
Few pirate artifacts have ever been recovered, and even the tiny exhibit the new one replaces helped the small museum pull in more than 200,000 visitors a year. The new one, which features about 300 artifacts and displays about pirate life and the science of the recovery project, is expected to draw even more.
And for those visitors, there will be no Caveats of the Caribbean, no wavering about the origins of what they're seeing. The sign over the exhibit is as direct as a point-blank musket shot: "Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge 1718."