CHARLESTON, S.C. - On the anniversary of its sinking, a scientist said while it's still not known what sent the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley to the bottom, the vessel will eventually give up its secrets.
"There is no such thing as a smoking gun when you are conducting a forensic investigation," Maria Jacobsen, the senior archaeologist on the Hunley project, said Thursday.
"Archaeology is the perfect forensic discipline. But in our case we have a very cold case. It's not 10 years old. It's over 140 years old," she said. "I'm very confident we will know what happened but it's a matter of time."
Thursday was the 141st anniversary of the sinking of the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship.
The 40-foot, hand-cranked Hunley rammed a spar with a black powder charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864.
But the Hunley also went down and was finally located off Sullivans Island in 1995. It was raised five years later and brought to a conservation lab at the old Charleston Naval Base where it sits in a tank of chilled water.
Thursday evening, Confederate re-enactors planned to march from Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island to Breach Inlet, where the sub began its ill-fated mission. They planned to throw wreaths onto the water in memory of the sub's eight-man crew.
Earlier, journalists got a chance to see the wooden crew bench removed from the submarine. The 18-foot bench, fashioned of three sections of wood, is in remarkably good shape after the sub sat on the ocean floor for decades.
Jacobsen noted that there are few signs that worms ate away at the wood.
That would indicate the submarine filled with sediment after the sinking. Water rushing through would have brought in more sea life, she suggested.
Paul Mardikian, the Hunley's senior conservator, focused a
magnifying glass on the bench to reveal a human hair from one of the crewmen.
Scientists later found the faint imprint of fabric on the bench,
which had been painted with an oil-based paint.
Since the paint probably took a long time to dry, the imprint could have been from the clothes of a crewman or perhaps a someone working on the sub before its voyage, said Kellen Correia, a spokeswoman for the Hunley project.
More clues about what happened after the sinking will be provided by examining the sediment excavated earlier, Jacobsen said.
Using Lead 210 dating, scientists can narrow down to decades when something happened in the sub. Beyond that, she said, scientists can get an even closer estimate by looking for pollen inside the sediment.
"We are looking at the pollen inside the layers. You can look at the pollen and that will give you an idea of how things changed in a year," she added.
Mardikian said that about 1,000 artifacts have been removed from the Hunley so far, including the shoes of the crew which were freeze-dried as part of the conservation process.
He said scientists are working three days a week on the sub itself and two days on conserving artifacts. Scientists think that they may find more artifacts in the heavy encrustations on the sub found beneath the crew bench.
The remains of the Hunley's eight-man crew were buried last year in a ceremony that attracted thousands and has been called the last Confederate funeral.
Scientists are still determining the best way to conserve the Hunley itself. The sub eventually will go on display in a museum in North Charleston.