BY SCHUYLER KROPF
of The Post and Courier staff
There's a chance Hunley commander Lt. George Dixon kept a log and carried it with him on the sub's final voyage.
And if it's there, as an X-ray appears to show, researchers may have found the Holy Grail of Hunley excavation: direct insights into the lives of the crew and the thoughts of the men as they operated the sub.
Historians would "know hour by hour, minute by minute" what happened with the operation of the secretive submersible, project manager Bob Neyland said Friday.
After a summer break, archaeologists will resume excavation of the sub Monday. About 80 percent of the crew compartment has been cleared of silt, but key areas remain covered, including the front and rear bulkheads, where some of the sub's diving controls are still covered up, and the space under a wooden bench where the crew sat.
"This probably is the final archaeological venture into the sub to remove all the evidence to see what happened to the Hunley," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the state Hunley Commission.
First up are more X-rays. But team members hope to eventually find an array of personal artifacts beneath the bench. It is the most likely place the crew would have stuffed their belongings as they prepared for battle.
Excavators have already found numerous small items such as buttons, pencils and a sewing thimble. They also hope to find paper, such as letters, that could help identify individual crewmen.
"If there are personnel effects on board, we can start putting names to remains," McConnell said.
Still, Dixon's mud-filled remains that were removed from the sub earlier this year remain the most promising. An X-ray of his clothing shows he was carrying a pocket watch and what appears to be a metallic clasp to what may be a personal log, diary or ledger.
"There is a likelihood that somebody was writing on something," McConnell said.
The pocket watch could also include a photograph of a family member or loved one, as was the tradition at the time. It could be years, however, before Dixon's remains are fully investigated.
Also important is finding out more about how the sub worked. Its sea cocks, depth gauges and other mechanics are heavily corroded, and it will be delicate work investigating how they functioned.
The archaeologists admit they might be years away from determining what caused the sub to sink on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, after successfully ramming a 90-pound black powder charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic. That ruling will take a wide array of assessments, ranging from the degree of hull plate damage to analyzing the burial sequence around the wreck. Even the hour that Dixon's pocket watch stopped may be a factor.
"We haven't found the smoking gun," Neyland said. The determination will be "a true piece of detective work over a few years of analysis. I think it will come together, but it will come together slowly," he said.
The final phase of the excavation should be completed by Christmas.
• NASA has shown an interest in analyzing any oxygen that might be trapped in the sub. The oldest surviving "ancient" air dates only from the 1950s, Neyland said.
• McConnell said he hopes to have a recommendation by February on where the sub will be housed. Charleston, Mount Pleasant and North Charleston have all shown an interest in getting the Hunley.
• Officials still need to determine if there were eight or nine men on board. Historical accounts say there were nine men in the Hunley, but the remains of only eight have been found so far.