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History's buccaneers: bad guys or bad rap?

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Mark Wilde-Ramsing may be ashore in his office, but his thoughts are often on a patch of water that's displayed on his computer screen via a live feed from a tower-mounted zoom camera.

On the surface, the picture is not much to look at: a marker buoy being tossed about by whitecaps on the angry brown waters of North Carolina's Beaufort Inlet. But 30 feet down lie the remains of a 17th-century vessel that experts say once belonged to the notorious pirate Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard.

Since its discovery in 1996, Shipwreck Site 0003BUI has drawn journalists, television crews, and thousands of curious tourists and pirate enthusiasts to this subdued port and resort town on the central Carolina coast. The wreck's location, size, age, and contents seem to match what is known about Queen Anne's Revenge, the 40-gun pirate ship that Blackbeard ran aground here in November 1717.

"I tell you, I just can't believe people's level of interest in pirates," says Mr. Wilde-Ramsing, an underwater archaeologist who is managing the careful excavation of the site for the state of North Carolina. "It's like dinosaurs, Robin Hood, or the Wild West: People really want to know about this stuff."

In recent years, experts have been able to piece together a far clearer picture of Blackbeard, "Black Sam" Bellamy, Bartholomew Roberts, and other participants in the so-called "Golden Age" of piracy in the early 18th century. Driven in part by the discovery of pirate wrecks along the US Atlantic seaboard, historians and archaeologists have combed British archives, colonial legal records, French logbooks, and even the the sea floor itself, searching for clues about these elusive outlaws, who captured the imagination of their contemporaries and never let it go.

Pirates, the new argument goes, got a bad rap in many ways. The popular image of pirates as a gang of sadistic monsters led by a despotic, possibly deranged captain is largely a product of an early 18th-century propaganda campaign against them, says historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh.

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