Jacob Parr puts on a pair of work gloves and walks around to the backyard of his Chesapeake, Virginia, home, heading straight for a kiddie pool next to the back fence.
From afar, it doesn’t look like much.
But when Parr walks over, he reaches into the pool and lifts out a long, skinny anchor, covered in rust. For perhaps 300-odd years, the anchor likely lay in a Suffolk waterway, gathering corroding salt — but no attention.
That was until Parr, a 27-year-old hobbyist, recently found it using nothing more than a magnet on a rope. Now, Virginia archaeologists are interested in preserving the anchor and learning more about how it fits in with the region’s maritime history — including a “ghost fleet” of ships they were already studying just a few hundred feet away.
It all started earlier this year, when Parr came across the concept of “magnet fishing” on the video platforms TikTok and YouTube. It’s a blend of treasure hunting and environmentalism, proponents say.
Magnet fishers place magnets on ropes and throw them into water to see what sticks.
Parr, a local firefighter, started magnet fishing in March. He finds everything from rusty nails to bicycles and shopping carts. He recently pulled up a Lime scooter from the Elizabeth River at Norfolk’s Waterside.
The environmentalist side comes from cleaning up the water. Parr said he never throws items back in. He loads up his pickup, piles the haul in his backyard and eventually scraps the metal.
“You never know what’s down there,” he said.
Parr and his wife, Katie, were magnet fishing June 13 at Constant’s Wharf along the Nansemond River in Suffolk.
In a video on his YouTube channel — the Tidewater Magnet Thrower — he documented the day’s finds, which included a baby stroller and some old metal that was likely bridge scaffolding. At one point he had to jump in the water after some lost equipment.
But he kept feeling his magnet get stuck on something big, he said.
The magnet he was using theoretically is able to pull up to 1,400 pounds, though using it underwater complicates things. He felt it attach to something, but couldn’t quite yank it up. So Parr added a grappling hook onto the magnet, which managed to snag the ring at the top of the anchor.
“What kind of freaking pirate ship is this off of?” Parr says with a laugh in the video while hauling the anchor onto the dock.
Coincidentally, his YouTube logo already included an anchor; now it means so much more, he said.
But at the time, Parr didn’t know just how old the iron relic was. Or that the waterway, now fronted by everyday businesses, already was on state archaeologists’ radar.
In 2017, Suffolk resident and historical society member Kermit Hobbs went to the Nansemond River with a drone during low tide. By flying overhead, his drone captured the wooden bones of several ships, and a team of archaeologists began documenting what they called the “Nansemond Ghost Fleet.”
In their resulting report last year, the team said it ultimately found remnants from myriad vessels that played a role in the modern industrial development of Suffolk, including ones with names like a crab scape, scow schooner, bugeye and more.
The Constant’s Wharf area was a beehive of activity at its height in the 18th and 19th centuries, said Brendan Burke, a member of that team who is an underwater archaeologist for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Boats were coming in and out constantly of what was then Nansemond County, delivering and exporting everything from lumber and textiles to sugar and cutlery.
There were “lots of things changing hands,” Burke said. “It was not uncommon for things to fall overboard.”
That’s an archaeologist’s dream, he said, because it provides a lens into the culture of those eras. Waterway sites are particularly revealing because everyone passed through, regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic class, he added.
After Parr took the anchor home this month, he came across The Virginian-Pilot’s article about the ghost fleet and reached out to Burke to see if his find might be connected.
It is, Burke said, in the sense of the general area all being part of maritime history. The style of this anchor is very common to the 18th and 19th centuries, but it’s hard to narrow the time frame, Burke told The Pilot.
It would have had a wooden crosspiece called a stock, he said. The ring at the top also indicates a rope anchor line was used instead of the more modern anchor chain. Those traits are generally associated with the pre-Civil War era.
It’s possible the anchor was used more recently, though. Unless lost in the water, anchors generally last and get reused, Burke noted. Someone could’ve bought it from a stack of old anchors a neighbor had lying around.
It’s therefore hard to tell whether the anchor was lost in the most recent century, or whether it’s been buried in the Nansemond all along.
Everyone agrees the anchor is a great find. But Parr and the state differ over what to do next.
Burke plans to go out to Chesapeake and take measurements.
What he’d prefer, though, is for the anchor to be put back in the water at the Suffolk site. Proper conservation of iron artifacts — which involves soaking it in electric-charged water to draw out corroding chlorides — is time-consuming and expensive, Burke said.
The state would rather the artifacts be left and monitored where they were found, alongside any others that are there and can give context to the archaeological site.
Parr, however, said he doesn’t want to risk someone else taking the anchor. He’s seeking to donate or sell the anchor to an interested museum, but needs to figure out logistics and hopes for it to remain local so he could visit.
In the meantime, the anchor’s sitting in the kiddie pool. Before he put it in water, it turned bright orange within days.
Parr hopes to build his YouTube following, keep cleaning the water and find some more neat stuff. One man’s junk, and all that.
But it’ll be hard to beat the anchor, he said.
“I have my work cut out for me to find something cooler than this.”
©2021 The Virginian-Pilot. Visit at pilotonline.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.