Hunley artifacts recovered


Friday, March 16, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


     Archaeologists digging out the Confederate submarine Hunley finally made contact with the crew, recovering two buttons that were sitting upside down and inches apart on what appears to be a wooden bench.
     The buttons, made of either copper or brass, are the first artifacts recovered in the excavation of the Hunley. They are about the size of a quarter and feature an ornate and flowing capital letter "A" cast in 19th-century writing.
     It's too early to determine what the "A" stands for, but it could denote its owner was in the artillery or more likely that he came from the state of Alabama, where the sub, her captain - Lt. George Dixon - and some of the other Hunley sailors originated.
     "Cool stuff here today," said project manager Bob Neyland at the sub's conservation lab on the former Navy Base in North Charleston.
     The wooden plank, discovered on the sub's port side, might be something as simple as a shelf, but Neyland said more likely it is the bench or a piece of a bench that members of the crew sat on as they cranked the sub's propeller shaft.
     It was found at a downward angle and may have been intentionally positioned that way for comfort to the men, or it may have collapsed after 137 years of being submerged, Neyland said.
     For overnight protection the plank was recovered with wet mud.
     Meanwhile, the buttons, though tarnished, are in remarkably good shape, Neyland said, adding that the eyelets appear ready to be sewed back onto clothing.
     It is not clear how they got to be sitting on the bench since no other piece of clothing has so far been found in the area. They might have been part of a jacket that either rotted away or might have fallen to the floor of the sub and is buried there, Neyland said.
     It took more than four hours to remove them because they had to be mapped and photographed. For preservation purposes, they were dunked in fresh water to prevent further corrosion and may be made available for media pictures today.
     "It is both chilling and exciting to think that the last person to touch these buttons was in the midst of victory 137 years ago," said Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley.
     The two pieces were found by Hunley team archaeologists Mike Scafuri while he was working in an area near the center of the crew compartment. Eight men sat in the crew section on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, and cranked the Hunley's propeller shaft when it attacked and sank the blockade ship USS Housatonic.
     About 80 buckets of silt have been cleaned out of the sub this week as archaeologists attempt to bring down the sediment level inside the crew compartment. As the silt is removed, it is sifted through screens and during sifting work Thursday work crews also found a small rubber gasket that could have helped seal any number of points or mechanics inside the sub. Several small fragments of leather also were found.
     In the next two weeks, scientists hope to have gone deep enough to find the crank shaft. But Thursday's discovery of the buttons helps prove that "everything that went out with the sub and went down with the sub is still in the sub," Neyland said.


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


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