Archaeologists begin excavating Hunley
Tuesday, January 23, 2001
By SCHUYLER KROPF
Of The Post and Courier staff
Small pox. Tuberculosis. Fever. These are some of the diseases
archaeologists will worry about when the excavation of the Confederate submarine Hunley
begins this morning in North Charleston.
Chances are no killer germ survived 137 years at the bottom of
the ocean. But in a low-oxygen environment, it's hard to tell.
"We have no indication that any of these men were
sick," Hunley project manager Dr. Bob Neyland said Monday. "But you have to take
Gloves and goggles are within the rules of safety, and so are
injections for tetanus.
After five months of prep work, scientists will make their first
formal entry into the sub today at Warren Lasch Conservation Lab where public tours have
been temporarily suspended and sub access sealed off except for the very few.
The first task is to scoop out - by hand - the sub's silt-filled
back compartment. Scientists will stick their hands through a 3-foot-long tear in the
right stern (rear) - a ballast area not far from the propeller - that likely was punched
decades ago by a wayward anchor.
Here, archaeologists will pull out cupfuls of silt hoping to
expose the Hunley's mechanics, including the steering rod controlled by Lt. George Dixon
on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, when the Hunley attacked and sank the USS Housatonic.
"I think in the next several months this project will really
have a sizzle factor to it in terms of ... secrets coming out," said Sen. Glenn
McConnell, chairman of the state Hunley Commission.
The center compartment, where the Hunley's nine-man crew sat,
probably won't be entered until mid-February. Team members working there hope to find
pieces of bone, trinkets, buttons, clothes, crew personal items and perhaps maps and
The Hunley is "the world's finest time capsule,"
McConnell said. It "has defied the laws of time."
He also dispelled rumors that some of the sand now filling the
sub might be sold and marketed as a fund-raising novelty for the project, expected to cost
millions. No such selling is envisioned because the Hunley is first and foremost a war
grave for nine men, McConnell said.
"We felt that would have been selling the contents of a
coffin," he added.
Neyland said the tons of sand that will be removed might one day
be returned to the site of the wreck - 4 miles off Charleston - and ceremoniously dumped
back into the ocean.
Before that happens, the layers of sand inside the sub will be
mapped so archaeologists can tell how fast the Hunley filled with silt after sinking. EL
The trickiest part will be entering the human compartment between the sub's two hatch
towers. The plan now is to remove at least three of the eight semi-circular panels that
cover that section.
Archaeologists first must examine the inside of the rear chamber
so they can determine how the back side of the rivets are sunk. So far, several attempts
at X-raying the sub and those rivets have been unfruitful.
"The sub is full of wet sand, and wet sand effectively
blocks X-rays," Neyland said.
The cold water storage tank now holding the sub won't be fully
drained during the excavation so that the sub stays wet and chilled, a factor that could
also reduce the spread of any disease.
When the crew's remains are removed, they will be buried at the
Hunley plot at Magnolia Cemetery alongside two other Hunley crews. They also might lie in
state inside the Statehouse.
Since the tours started last fall, more than $600,000 has been
raised for the project, said Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley. He said the
project has been so successful, it has become the benchmark of modern-day recoveries.