Star Magazine

The Conversation: KU and St. Thomas Aquinas grad Kate Morrand investigates underwater treasures for the Navy

Kate Morrand is a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School and the University of Kansas. She lives in Washington, D.C., but her family is in Overland Park.
Kate Morrand is a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School and the University of Kansas. She lives in Washington, D.C., but her family is in Overland Park. The Kansas City Star

Kate Morrand, 30, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School and the University of Kansas, is an underwater archaeologist for the Naval History & Heritage Command’s Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory in Washington, D.C., where she lives. We caught up with Morrand while she was home visiting her family in Overland Park over the holidays.

Your degree is in fine art and art history. What led you to a career working for the Navy?

After I finished at KU, I lived abroad for several years in France, in a small town called Angers. It was in Europe that I was exposed to conservation as a career path, because there is so much cultural history there.

I got my master’s in fine art and archaeological conservation in Florence, Italy, then moved to Washington because of its museum system. In 2009, I started interning for the Navy, and that led to my current job.

You are called an underwater archaeologist, but much of your work is in the lab. Do you scuba dive?

Yes. It’s hard to teach someone who is a diver to be an archaeologist, but as an archaeologist you can easily become a scuba diver. There are a lot of sites that are within the safe diving range of 130 feet or shallower.

But a lot of my team is also trained on remote sensing equipment to do mapping of sites that are too deep to dive. We can also use autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, to go in and observe sites as well.

Have you been on a dive recently?

The most recent military history project that we’ve undertaken that involved scuba diving was in the Patuxent River. We found a ship that we believe is the Scorpion, the lead ship of the Chesapeake Flotilla, which was captained by Joshua Barney and charged with protecting Washington during the War of 1812.

The wood-hulled vessels were supposed to harass the British navy in the Chesapeake and chase them out into the open ocean, but because they were very shallow drafted they could run very far upriver to escape the British.

They had retreated far up the Patuxent River and were being chased, so they removed the cannons and weapons, then packed a bunch of black powder into the sterns of the vessels and exploded them.

This ship, and other parts of the flotilla, has been under the Patuxent since 1814. Despite that it’s in beautiful condition.

The bottom of the Patuxent is very thick clay. The ship was only in 6 feet of water, but there was a 6-foot layer of sediment on top of the heavy clay that the ship was in, so it was very well protected. The sediment and clay blocked out light and oxygen, which helps in preservation, and there was less disturbance by humans than in many cases. You don’t have anyone trying to build a shopping mall on top of it.

And you wouldn’t have divers taking souvenirs away, like from a reef wreck.

Right, and I should reiterate that all Navy vessels, even if they sank 50, 100, 150 years ago, are still U.S. Navy property.

We are mainly charged with recording the history of the site, but many other issues come into play. Sunken ships could have human remains and be war graves. Many ships, especially from the Civil War and the Second World War, still have live ordnance. There could be nuclear material on board.

Did you find any interesting objects on the Scorpion?

We got quite a bit of surgical equipment. There was a dental tool called a tooth key that was quite terrifying to look at. We found surgical scissors for cutting bandages and for cutting tissue and glass vials that would have held medicine.

Those artifacts are why we think it is the Scorpion, because the lead ship would have had a surgeon.

When money is so tight, why does the Navy care about spending money to preserve these old things?

Part of our mission is to engage active-duty sailors in their history. We want to inspire our sailors by letting them know they are part of this great history that stretches back 250 years.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to Follow her on Instagram, Twitter @CindyHoedel, and on Facebook.