Storied shipwreck: A diver inspects the paddle wheel of the mary Celeste wreck where a bottle of wine dated 1853 was recently discovered.
Storied shipwreck: A diver inspects the paddle wheel of the mary Celeste wreck where a bottle of wine dated 1853 was recently discovered.
A bottle of wine, discovered by SCUBA divers in the wake of Hurricane Bill, could help piece together an untold subplot of one of Bermuda's most storied shipwrecks.

The corked bottle, dated 1853, was found amid the wreckage of the Mary Celeste - a steam-powered blockade runner used to transport guns to British backed Confederate forces during the American Civil War.

And experts believe it could hint at the ship's role in a trans-Atlantic blackmarket wine trade.

The ship went down off the South Shore in 1864 claiming the life of the cook, who is rumoured to have scrambled below decks in a futile bid to retrieve his wages.

The latest discovery, made by curator of wrecks Phillipe Rouja, hints at another role for the fated paddlewheel steamer.

"It's not worth that much in itself, but what it tells us about the story is more pleasing," said Mr Rouja.

"The wine had to have come from France, so while they were running guns it seems as though they were also running bottles of wine.

"Somewhere there was probably a buyer for this. It speaks to a blackmarket trade."

The discovery was made in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Bill. The storm churned up the seabed around the wreck, exposing parts of the ship that had been buried under sand for years.

"You usually cannot see the stern at all but this time it was completely exposed, right down to the keel."

After making the find Mr Rouja immediately closed off the wreck to recreational divers. It is relatively unusual to discover new artifacts on Bermuda's shipwrecks, which have been heavily salvaged over the years, and he was keen to preserve the site.

He had planned further archaelogical dives in a bid to retrieve pieces of the crate and confirm his theory that the wine bottle was part of a larger order destined for sale in the South.

But the exposed parts of the wreck were quickly re-covered in sand and he is now pessimistic about the propsects of any further significant finds.

But he is appealing for veteran wreck hunters to come forward with stories of any previous discoveries on the Mary Celeste.

"If we can establish the type and vintage of the wine then we can learn something about trade in that period - for example if there was demand for fine expensive French wine in the south at the height of the civil war that is somewhat interesting.

"From a local perspective the significance of the

corked wine bottle showing up is that it lends veracity to the undocumented stories and myths of divers finding other corked bottles on shipwrecks from this period in the 1960's and 70's and having a drink of 100 year old port, for example, from the Minnie Breslauer.

"I'd really like to know if anyone had found bottles of wine on the Mary Celeste in the past. What we are trying to do is build a fuller story of what happened on this wreck."

As of 2003 it is illegal for anyone to remove artifacts from a shipwreck without prior authority. The offence is punishable by a $25,000 fine.

But Mr Rouja said anyone who had taken items from wrecks in the past was not at threat.

"We can't go back in time and charge people. We just want to know what they found, there could be items removed from this wreck that we don't even know about."

Mr Rouja said the thrill of shipwreck hunting was largely in piecing together the jigsaw of a story, rather than the prospect of finding treasure.

"Looking for gold is not what shipwrecks are really about. If you see any news story about treasure ships they spend a few seconds talking about the treasure and the rest is about the guy that spent 50 years of his life uncovering the story. It is the human element that appeals to people."