Sunday, January 01, 2006

Fragile artifacts challenge Hunley restoration team

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The State
January 02, 2005

CHARLESTON, S.C. - A charred and ragged matchstick looks like a piece of trash, but for archaeologists working on the H.L. Hunley, it's a revealing piece of history.

Since scientists began pulling artifacts from the Civil War-era submarine in 2001, a small staff of experts have been working to preserve them. The variety of material - metal, wood, textiles, leather, cork and even rubber - forced the Hunley lab staff to consider a number of different restoration techniques.

Today, many of the 1,000 artifacts found in the Hunley remain crusted, rusted and are being held in water and chemicals awaiting treatment. Hundreds of other artifacts, however, have been restored in the past three years.

"You really gain an appreciation for what they are doing there when you look at the literature and see that there is no absolute way to treat some of these things," says Mike Drews, a materials science professor at Clemson.

Drews is working with Hunley scientists to develop new ways to conserve the metals that form the sub's hull.

The Hunley, which on Feb. 17, 1864, became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship, is made of cast and wrought irons. Methods differ for preserving those two metals, and would be hard to apply to the Hunley without taking it apart. So Drews and others are seeking various scientific methods to fit the project.

The artifacts have taken scientists into uncharted waters. While preserving cork is nearly impossible; scientists are trying to find a way to save the corks that were used for stoppers on the Hunley crews' canteens.

Paul Mardikian, the Hunley's senior conservator, and others on the project have used freeze-drying to remove the seawater from most things found in the Hunley. Or the items have been soaked in fresh water and chemical baths to leech out the saltwater that threatens to destroy them.

"A button seems like a simple artifact, but it's not," Mardikian says. "Some of the buttons are hollow and have seawater inside. They have threads of cloth attached to them. They are faded in some places, except where the thread protected them."

Some artifacts have proved especially complicated. For instance, one of the Hunley sailors carried a leather wallet. Opening it without destroying it was a challenge, in part because the stitching that held it together had degraded.

Maria Jacobsen, the senior Hunley archaeologist, says the scientists have decided to leave some buttons as found, treating them only enough to save them. Other artifacts have to be cleaned, but not enough to erase history.

"We don't want to clean off data that is there," Jacobsen said. "Some of the buttons we want to clean up enough to read the stamps on their backs for clues, others we want to leave with the natural patina. That tells another story in itself.

"That's the art to the science: Figuring out how much restoration to do and how much wear and tear to leave intact.

"We have to restore things to what I call the life of the artifact," Mardikian says. "On this particular matchstick, we have to clean the iron off but keep the burn stain."

The stain suggests the match, probably meant to light the candles that illuminated the sub's interior or its blue light lantern, sparked but didn't fire.

Several of the artifacts already conserved have yielded clues to the sailors' identities and lives.

Mardikian said some of the more interesting data is in the remains of the Hunley sailors' shoes.

Although most of the shoes had disintegrated, scientists have cleaned and preserved some to the point that they have the fossilized imprint of the skin of one crewman in a shoe.

In one shoe, the footprint of sub commander George Dixon is fresh. Scientists say the imprint is surprisingly narrow for an adult man who was at least 5 feet, 9 inches tall.

"That is what makes this story human," says Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley.

"The amazing restoration they are doing not only says something about the professionalism of the people working on the project, but it is also helping us learn more about these men."


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