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Hunley Artifact Preservation - Preserving items proves troublesome

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Postby TMSmalley » Mon Jan 03, 2005 3:42 pm

Saving history, piece by piece

Fragile artifacts challenge Hunley restoration team

BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff
It looks like any old matchstick, ragged on the business end with a short black streak down one side.

What makes it unique is that it's charred with a spark of history, discarded in the belly of the H. L. Hunley 140 years ago.

To the crew of the Civil War-era submarine, it was trash; for the archaeologists piecing together the history of the sub and her crew, it is one of 1,000 artifacts that reveal a bit more about an important chapter in history.

"Who would believe a matchstick could survive so long?" says Paul Mardikian, the Hunley's senior conservator.

Since scientists began pulling artifacts from the Hunley in 2001, Mardikian and 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 weigh a number of different restoration techniques. They didn't go to all the trouble of recovering these artifacts just to watch them deteriorate.

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

It has been no easy feat.

"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. Existing methods for preserving those two metals sharply differ and would be hard to apply to the Hunley without taking it apart -- something no one wants to do. As a result, Drews and others are pushing the science to fit the project.

The artifacts also have taken scientists into uncharted waters. For instance, conventional wisdom holds that preserving cork is nearly impossible; Mardikian and other scientists are trying to find a way to save the corks that were used for stoppers on the Hunley crews' canteens.

For most things found in the Hunley, Mardikian and his crew have used freeze-drying to remove the seawater, or soaked them 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."

The Hunley has provided a series of complications. 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. Although the wallet was empty, scientists say it still speaks volumes about the sailor who carried it.

"He carried this empty wallet thinking, 'Maybe one day I'll have money to put in it,'" Mardikian says. "Isn't that what we all hope for?"

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 says. "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 is the art to this science. Figuring out how much restoration to do, and how much wear and tear to leave intact, is a big part of the conservators' job.

"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. Perhaps it was wet, or maybe just a dud.

Several of the artifacts already conserved have yielded clues to the sailors' identities and lives. Mardikian, who also worked on Titanic artifacts, says some of the more interesting data is in the ragged remains of the Hunley sailors' shoes.

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

In one fragile shoe, the footprint of sub commander George Dixon appears as fresh as if he had worn it yesterday. The most striking feature of the imprint is that it is surprisingly narrow for an adult man who was at least 5' 9".

"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."

Everything found on board the Hunley will be used in a museum to tell the first successful attack sub's story. Plans call for all of these artifacts to be displayed along with the sub when a museum dedicated to it opens a few years down the road.

Ultimately, the hammers, wrenches, wallets and pipes -- even the discarded matchsticks -- of the Hunley crew will tell a story as fascinating as the sub itself.


###

Preserving items proves troublesome

The Associated Press

CHARLESTON - 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 has 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 or 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 warship, 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 crew's 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."

###




Edited By TMSmalley on 1104782178
Tim Smalley
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