Saving sub's artifacts is tedious process

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CHARLESTON, S.C. --- Leave something buried in muddy silt and saltwater for a century or so, and it's bound to take the shine off it.

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Paul Mardikian, the senior Hunley conservator, holds up the wood dashboard that was holding an oil can and a compass box inside the submarine. The wood is probably heart pine.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Paul Mardikian, the senior Hunley conservator, holds up the wood dashboard that was holding an oil can and a compass box inside the submarine. The wood is probably heart pine.

Take it out of that muck without conserving it properly, and it'll fall apart within weeks, if not days.

While Clemson University prepares the H.L. Hunley for a multiyear restoration process, scientists at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston are working to save the hundreds of artifacts found onboard the Confederate submarine.

Some of those things, most notably the gold coin carried by sub Cmdr. George Dixon, need little work to return to their old glory. Others will require years of treatment, including a long soak in fresh water to pull out corrosive salts and a long spell in a freeze-dry machine to evaporate the water trapped inside.

The artifacts that head conservator Paul Mardikian and his staff have saved in the past year offer an intimate look at life aboard the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship.

One item looks like a piece of scrap wood with a few odd cuts in it. But the primitive shelf served as the Hunley's dashboard.

It fit against the barrier separating the crew compartment and forward ballast tank, with a notch cut out to allow the submarine's depth gauge to fit behind it. Two wedges held it tight between the bulkheads. The archaeologists excavating the sub found a compass box and an oil can on it, and they speculate that one of the candles once sat there, too.

The wood, probably heart pine, had absorbed enough water that the board weighed 10 pounds when it was pulled from the sub. After freeze-drying, it weighed only 5 pounds.

There is a stark difference between the quality of things Dixon carried and the belongings of the rest of the crew. Three pocketknives have been found, and two of them are in fairly rough shape. Dixon's is much better.

The knife appeared to be made of silver, but after X-ray analysis, conservators learned that it's really a cheaper nickel and copper alloy. Maybe Dixon discovered this, said Mr. Mardikian, and that's why he didn't have his named engraved on it, like he did most other things he carried.

The alloy used for the knife might be what preserved it. Mr. Mardikian said silver doesn't hold up in saltwater as well as nickel and copper.

The knife still has the blade intact, but it can't be opened. The metal has mineralized it in place.

When archaeologists found a big block of concretion on the Hunley's dashboard, they weren't sure what it was until X-rays revealed the outline of an oil can. After chipping away the hardened sand and shell, they found a brass oil can still half-full of 19th century oil.

Restoring it to nearly new was not as difficult as it was for some other things on the sub. Brass, Mr. Mardikian says, is quite durable. Whereas most of the tools and belongings the crew had were cheap and not very well-made -- their shoes, clothes and canteens, for instance -- the oil can was of high quality.

A silk bandanna was found around the neck of James Wicks, one of the oldest crewmen and a former U.S. Navy sailor. Mr. Mardikian said it is one of the few pieces of surviving textile on the sub, because silk is the strongest of cloth fibers. Though cotton might degrade in a week, Mr. Mardikian said, he has seen silk that was centuries old found on shipwrecks.

Although scientists were able to preserve the cloth, there is no way to unravel the knot, presumably tied by Wicks. There also is little chance of determining its original color.

Vegetable dye was often used to color this cloth, and it was notorious for washing out. The orange tint now in the cloth is likely a result of its proximity to the oxidizing iron hull.


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