Thursday, May 10, 2001
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff
Archaeologists have discovered brain tissue still lodged in the skulls of Hunley crewmen.
MUSC has conducted CAT scans on the skulls of the Confederate submarine's final crew, but whether further study of the tissue will help scientists solve the mystery of the Hunley's last voyage remains to be seen.
Bob Neyland, director of the Hunley project, said the presence of the brain tissue - found in all eight of the skulls recovered so far - speaks to the level of preservation inside the submarine. Scientists had predicted they might find such remains even before the Hunley was lifted in August, but said it is still an amazing find.
"It is interesting that it's there, but we don't know yet what we can learn from it," Neyland said. "Since it's only rarely present, there's not a great deal of experience in studying it."
Neyland and officials with the Hunley Commission and Friends of the Hunley said the tissue would be treated reverentially.
"This discovery, although not unexpected, is a very profound and moving statement about the Hunley crew," said Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley, who said the first mission of the project will be to treat the remains with respect. "They were human, they were heroes, and it is very apparent that we need to honor the sacrifice of these brave men and all who served on the Hunley."
The tissue actually complicates things for the archaeologists studying the Hunley. It gives them one more level of preservation to worry with, and it means the tissue will have to be preserved in the skeletons while facial reconstruction of the crew is attempted.
Privately, some officials connected with the projects say that with nearly two years of testing and study to be done, the final crew of the Hunley will most likely not be laid to rest alongside the submarine's first two crews in Magnolia Cemetery until late in 2002.
Charleston native Dr. Jamie Downs, the director and chief medical examiner for the Alabama Department of Forensic Science, is volunteering with the Hunley project. He said the CAT scans just provide scientists with one more set of facts to use in piecing together the puzzle of the Hunley's fate. It's too early, he said, to guess at what study of the brain matter might turn up.
"Cases like this don't happen every day," Downs said.
The tests run at MUSC give scientists a 3-D picture of the remains, which are still inside the craniums of the skeletons. The scans map the remains and measure water density. On living patients, the scans can indicate other abnormalities, such as tumors.
Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, said Wednesday that the brain tissue was a solemn discovery.
"This offers scientists opportunities that should allow us to more specifically identify these men," McConnell said. "But these remains will be handled with the utmost respect."
As scientists grapple with how to handle the preservation of human remains, archaeologists are working to gain access to the forward section of the crew compartment, where they expect to find the remains of Lt. George E. Dixon, the sub's commander. Neyland said Wednesday that his crew might attempt to remove another hull plate instead of removing the bellows system concreted to the dive plane controls. Removing the plate could take about three days. He still hopes the excavation of the submarine will be wrapped up by the end of this month.
Already, though, the artifacts are leading scientists toward Dixon. A candle found in a holder may have drifted back in the submarine from the commander's station, Neyland said.
Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net