Even after eight years, the QAR project is still in its infancy. Researchers estimate that the 16,000 artifacts recovered to date represent just two percent of the site's remains. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts still lie on the ocean floor. It will take at least five years to finish excavation and up to 15 years to clean, analyze, and conserve everything. "We'll be up to our gills with artifacts in the lab," says Wilde-Ramsing.

Desalination and artifacts aside, there would be no interest in the project without the larger-than-life reputation of Blackbeard himself. He was said to have dressed in black and to have carried abeltful of pistols and daggers. Before attacking another ship, he decorated his long black beard with colored ribbons and slow-burning matches, which emitted evil-looking wisps of smoke, adding to the whole effect. In 1718, his vessels ran aground at Beaufort Inlet, likely intentionally, and were abandoned. A few months later, Blackbeard was killed in a fierce battle at OcracokeInlet. The world's most famous pirate was beheaded and his corpse thrown overboard, where it continued to swim defiantly around the boat - ­either three or seven times, depending on the story - before finally sinking.

You'd think such gruesome history would disgust us today, but in fact it's the opposite. People love pirates, and they especially love Blackbeard, whose timeless popularity and legend come close to rock-star celebrity.

“It’s just amazing,” Wilde-Ramsing marvels. “It’s something ingrained — it may go back to Treasure Island and literature and Hollywood and the Wild West. This book that was written in 1724, A General History of the Robberies and Murder of the Most Notorious Pyrates, was a bestseller. It was like the dime-store novels of the 1800s. People are enthralled with these guys — Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde, that sort of rebel something … that free spirit.”