The Outer Banks

Listen, kids, we're going on an educational vacation this year! Now, before you moan and groan, we are going to learn about pirates, and airplanes, and Indians, and ... it's at the beach!

If you've ever noticed the squiggle in the east coast of detailed US maps, you've seen the Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina. Take highway 64. When you see the unforgettable billboard for Dirty Dick's Crab House, slow down because you are about to hit the ocean at Nags Head. Then you have to turn left or right, but in either direction, you'll find something interesting to learn about.

A fascinating confluence of history and vacation, after the jump.

Turn south and you'll enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with 75 miles of seashore on each side, limited development, and protected wildlife. Ocracoke Island is the southernmost part of the national seashore, and was recently named the United States' best beach. There are no roads to Ocracoke, so you'll have to get there by ferry or private plane.


Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard the Pirate, used Ocrakoke Island as his northern headquarters during his heyday in the 18th century. He died there in 1718.


The Outer Banks area is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, due to a high density of shipwrecks. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museumin Hatteras is both a walk-in and online resource about shipwrecks.


The current 220-foot Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built in 1871 to guide ships around Diamond Shoals. By the 1990s, the encroaching sea threatened the undermine the lighthouse, so in 1999 it was moved, inch by inch, to a location 2,870 feet inland.


Just a couple of miles north of Nags Head is Kitty Hawk, which became famous as the place from which Orville Wright telegraphed the news of the first airplane flight in 1903. Orville and his brother Wilbur had moved to the Outer Banks for their flight experiments due to the constant winds and the soft landing surface. The actual flight took place in Kill Devil Hills, just a couple more miles north. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is open year round. You can see the actual path of the first flight (which is shorter than a modern airliner), and visit the huge memorial on the hill. On a side note, wireless telegraphyoriginated in the Outer Banks only a couple of years earlier.


Those famous prevailing winds at Kitty Hawk are still in use! The area is home to Kitty Hawk Kites, the world's largest hang-gliding school.


Roanoke Island is just west of the barrier islands. This is where Sir Walter Raleigh financed a colony of settlers in 1585. After three years with no supplies from England, the site was found completely deserted with no clue as to what happened to the settlers. The prevailing theory is that they split up and were absorbed by local Native American tribes. Personally, I think the mosquitos did them in. If DEET were available in the 16th century, history might have been different. The story is still told in the play The Lost Colonyat Manteo.

Just in case you think that an OBX vacation is all about history, check out the other activities such as fishing, dolphin watching, and windsurfing. And my family ends up doing a lot of this:

NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]


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