Remains may provide images of crewmen

 Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


Scientists on Tuesday finished the heavy lifting phase of the Hunley excavation. Now they start uncovering the mysteries the lost Confederate submarine has hidden for 137 years.
     The early signs are good that they will find quite a bit - including, possibly, a real profile of the crew.
     Within a few hours Tuesday, the Hunley team hoisted off two hull plates covering the submarine's crew compartment. With a total of three plates removed, archaeologists have enough room to excavate the Hunley's interior, and recover its crew. The inner workings of the iron, hand-cranked submarine are a secret kept since it disappeared off the coast of Charleston in 1864.
     Now all that stands between the scientists and the Hunley's crew and controls is a few tons of silt and sand. The excavation of the crew compartment is scheduled to begin Friday or Monday at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston.
     Archaeologists aren't sure what they'll find, but believe they will recover the tools used to control the submarine, such as a depth gauge and compass. They hope to find good skeletal remains of the crew, which they may be able to use to reconstruct facial features.
     Dr. Bob Neyland, the project manager, said Tuesday that by using heredity traits, genetic traits, DNA samples and bones inside the sub, the team hopes to create 3-D images of the Hunley crewmen.
     Experts in the field will come in from the Smithsonian Institution to help with that work if the remains are in good enough shape to use. Already, the Hunley Commission has a genealogist researching the crew of nine who went down with the sub to assist in that re-creation.
     The silt behind the two plates removed Tuesday yielded good news for that work. It was black and blue in color - a sign of low levels of oxygen. That, scientists say, has probably helped preserve the artifacts inside the sub. And improves chances of finding DNA.
     It should take only two weeks or so for archaeologists to remove the top layer of sand and silt in the crew compartment. But it could be more than a month before they know if they have enough to re-create the crew. The entire excavation could take months.
     The day scientists had been waiting on comes just six months after the sub was hoisted from the bottom of the Atlantic. Early Tuesday, the Hunley team removed the hull panel that was directly behind the sub's snorkel box - near where commander Lt. George Dixon would have stood during the Feb. 17, 1864 attack on the Housatonic.
     Behind that plate, the team found a strange bump that could either be a handle bar for the crew or even the crank that controlled the spool line to the sub's 90-pound explosive. A heavy crust of rust made it impossible to tell for sure what it was, but the bump is near the spot where the spool is depicted in the famous Conrad Wise Chapman painting of the sub.
     The two plates removed Tuesday, weighing nearly 200 pounds each, are not in as pristine condition as the first plate removed more than a week ago. On the aftermost plate removed, which was just in front of the rear conning tower, there were several inch-long holes near the rivets.
     "It's in fair condition, not perfect condition," said Paul Mardikian, senior conservator on the project. "But who could have expected this submarine to be in perfect condition as it was exposed to oxygen for several years?"
     A large chunk of concretion - a hardened concrete-like mixture of sand, clay and shells - protecting the hull fell off when the third plate was removed. That is being kept in water as well for further investigation.
     "The history of the submarine is trapped in this concretion," Mardikian said. "This will tell us how long the submarine was exposed before it was covered up."


Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net