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Hunley Update 11/22/03 - Why sub sank still baffles scientists

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Postby TMSmalley » Wed Nov 26, 2003 4:01 pm

Hunley senior conservator Paul Mardikian places a plastic covering over an opening in the submarine made when scientists removed a hull plate from the submarine's forward ballast tank in July.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Hunley mystery outlasts excavation
Why sub sank still baffles scientists

Of The Post and Courier Staff
What's left when a sunken submarine is finally cleared of tons of pudding-like mud, the bones of eight men and a collection of 3,000 artifacts?

A still unsolved mystery.

Three years after it was raised off Sullivan's Island, archaeologists continue to be baffled as to what caused the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley to sink.

But they have finished the sub's excavation. The final scoops of mud and seashells came out of the hard-to-reach fore and aft ballast tanks this week, clearing the sub's cramped insides all the way to the floor.

With the goo finally out, the Hunley team is ready to start the next phase: mapping and X-raying its insides, removing its internal mechanisms and trying to figure out what catastrophe befell the sub in its final moments nearly 140 years ago.

Although there are several theories, Hunley project manager Bob Neyland said the final answer probably won't come until all the critical data can be analyzed at once, years from now.

"A lot of things don't come together until you start writing up all the evidence," Neyland said, adding that there "is no smoking gun."

The X-ray of the sub is important because it will allow the scientists to see through all the levels of concretion covering both the sub's hull and its internal mechanics that may be covering up a defect that could have contributed -- even in a small, now undetectable way -- to the sinking.

As in previous digs in the sub, several new secrets about the Hunley and her crew were found in the past few weeks:

-- A repair kit to plug leaks. What was first thought to be a wooden chamber pot for the crew instead appears to be a caulking kit. It was aboard possibly in anticipation of the blast from ramming its 90-pound explosive into the Union blockade ship Housatonic. A chisel-shaped caulking iron was found nearby. A wrench, hammer and coil of rope were also found.

-- Ballast water could be moved from front to back. A pipe under the crew's feet allowed sea water to be moved back and forth between the fore and aft ballast tanks. The advantage? It meant the crew didn't have to exhaust themselves by pumping in more ballast water. Instead, they could manage the minimal amount they needed to dive, surface or keep the sub on an even keel. Archaeologists were able to get into the ballast tanks by removing outside hull panels.

-- Submarine integrity. None of the several large holes found in the sub appear to be from the time of the sinking but probably were a result of anchors being dragged over the sub afterward. The forward hatch is also slightly open and not fastened. Neyland said it may be because an anchor snagged it and forced it ajar. Sub commander George Dixon may also have left it open intentionally to act as a vent or to peer out.

With no obvious sign of disaster "we have to look for more subtle influences as to the reason for the sinking," Neyland said.

What is known for sure is that all eight crewmen died in their places in the sub: Dixon in front, and seven men behind him at working or rowing stations along the Hunley's internal propeller crank.

The Hunley became the world's first successful attack submarine on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, when it rammed its black powder charge into the Housatonic, sending the Yankee ship to the bottom in a powerful explosion. Although the sub is believed to have survived the attack, it never returned. It was found four miles offshore by a dive team funded by best-selling author Clive Cussler in 1995 and raised in 2000.

Most of the sub's innards -- including its crankshaft, crew bench seat, pumps, ballast ingots of various sizes and its depth gauge -- will also have to come out, Neyland said, so they can be conserved separately.

Conservation work has already begun on many of the other artifacts already found, including bones, buttons, Dixon's gold watch and the diamond jewelry he carried.

Tim Smalley
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Postby TMSmalley » Wed Nov 26, 2003 4:31 pm

PRESS RELEASE from Friends of the Hunley

Excavation of Civil War Sub Ends

Excavation of Civil War Sub Ends
(November 21, 2003 - CHARLESTON, SC)
This week, Hunley staff scientists completed the excavation of the H. L. Hunley’s two ballast tanks. During excavation of this area, over 1.5 tons of sediment were removed and volunteers assisted in the screening and recording of the sediment. The excavation, which began in early October, yielded more 19th-century artifacts as well as valuable analytical data.
A wooden barrel was uncovered earlier in the excavation on the bottom port side of the forward ballast tank and appears to have been modified for use as a bucket. “It contained a relatively heavy and radio-dense substance that we believe may be a lead-based caulking material. Right next to the bucket lay an iron tool with the shape of a chisel that could be a caulking iron, used to caulk or repair leaks in the submarine,” said Maria Jacobsen, Senior Archaeologist for the Hunley project. A sample of the bucket’s contents has been sent to Clemson University for material analysis.
During the excavation of the aft ballast tank, scientists were slowed down due to the discovery of a coil of rope. The fragile, waterlogged rope was carefully removed for conservation and documentation.
Also during this time, archaeologists took the opportunity to revisit the central crew compartment and remove some of the heavier concreted artifacts from the area where Lt. Dixon, the Hunley’s commander, was stationed. The objects excavated were not easily recognizable and had to be x-rayed to be identified. Some of the objects recovered included a wrench, a hammer, and three bolts. An artillery button was also uncovered in the center of the crew compartment. “These tools raise questions as to whether Lt. Dixon was working on the submarine on the final night making repairs or adjustments. With the condensation in the submarine and the iron clad plates that are on the floor of the sub apparently to raise the crew’s feet above the water which would accumulate, it seems Dixon would not have carelessly kept these tools in the water on a regular basis where they would corrode. Thus, it would suggest he was possibly using the tools that night adding another clue to the operation of the submarine and the cause of it not returning home. The evidential jigsaw puzzle gets another piece of evidence as we put together the detailed story of the H. L. Hunley and its proud crew,” said Senator Glenn McConnell, Chairman of the Hunley Commission.
Scientists hope this phase of excavation will also provide valuable data that could help solve the mystery on why the Hunley never returned after becoming the first successful combat submarine in world history. The forward and aft ballast tanks both had damage to them and over time, the sediment that filled those areas formed layers, or strata. Studying how these strata formed could eventually provide clues to the mystery of why the Hunley vanished.
Warren Lasch, Chairman of Friends of the Hunley, said, “The Hunley’s disappearance will not remain an unsolved mystery. Through interdisciplinary scientific research and forensic analysis, we will ultimately be able to accurately tell the Hunley’s chapter in world history.”
In December, the Hunley project team will have the submarine mapped. Pacific Survey will use new 3D Digital equipment to scan the emptied ballast tanks and the fully excavated crew compartment.

The H. L. Hunley was located in 1995 by Clive Cussler's National Underwater Agency (NUMA), a 501c3 non-profit organization. The hand-cranked submarine was raised in 2000 and delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where an international team of scientists are at work excavating and conserving the historic vessel and its artifacts.

Hours of operation for public tours and the Hunley gift shop are from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p. m. on Saturdays and from noon to 5:00 p. m. on Sundays. All proceeds go to support the Hunley conservation and excavation project. To purchase tickets call toll free 1-877-4HUNLEY (1-877-448-6539) or log onto the Internet at

Tim Smalley
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