Hunley lab on the map

Museum sends Civil War artifacts for restoration

Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff

     When officials at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum needed a collection of looted, poorly preserved Civil War ship artifacts restored, they called the Hunley lab.
     On Tuesday, 13 boxes of old pipes, blocks and tackles, buttons, fragments of plates and rifle stocks from the USS Cumberland and CSS Florida arrived at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where they will undergo extensive rehabilitation work over the next several months.
     Joe Judge, curator of the Navy museum in Norfolk, Va., said that when they received the money for the preservation, there was little question about where to spend it.
     "It's the most famous archaeology lab in the world right now," Judge said. "It's great that they are willing to work on it. It's really a good thing for us."
     In the next week, a cannon from the Confederate raider CSS Alabama will arrive at the North Charleston laboratory for conservation, joining one that arrived last year shortly after the H.L. Hunley was raised from the Atlantic floor and put in its 55-foot tank.
     Very quickly, this $2.5 million, state-of-the-art lab assembled in a building originally meant to store ship parts is making its name as a world-class archaeological preservation facility. It was Navy officials who first suggested that their Hampton Roads museum contract with the Lasch Conservation Center to do the work.
     That confidence in the Hunley conservation team runs throughout the scientific community. Wayne Smith, an assistant professor in Texas A&M's prestigious Nautical Archaeology program, says the Hunley lab - barely open a year - enjoys a great reputation in the scientific community.
     "They've got a heck of a working setup, an awfully great lab," Smith said. "They are set up to do some stuff that not many other people are set up to do."
     Officials with the Hunley project have always planned on the conservation center having a life beyond the work on the fish-boat, which could take another seven years or more. Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley, says the attention and work the lab is receiving proves it fills a valuable niche.
     "The fact that the Hampton Roads Naval Museum sent us the collection validates both the capability and versatility of the lab, and most certainly verifies its reputation as a world-class conservation facility," Lasch said Tuesday.
     The conservators at the Hunley lab will get a chance to prove their mettle with the artifacts from the Cumberland and Florida that they received Tuesday. They've had a long, hard trip from the Civil War to North Charleston.
     The USS Cumberland was a Union blockader stationed near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay when it had the misfortune to run into the CSS Virginia steaming toward a date with history.
     It was March 8, 1862, and the Confederate ironclad, which began its career as the Union ship Merrimack, was on its way to a battle the next day with the Union ironclad Monitor - a fight that would raise the stakes in Naval warfare.
     On the way to that rendezvous, the Virginia rammed and sank the Cumberland.
     Two years later, the Confederate raider CSS Florida was captured in Brazil by a Union ship and sailed back to Hampton Roads. Because the ship was captured in Brazilian waters, it was ordered back to South America - it was rightfully booty of the Brazilian government. But as the Yankee sailors were readying it for the voyage, it mysteriously sank.
     Since the war, geography has intertwined the histories of the two ships, which lie near one another in the James River. For years, folks have known where they were - Clive Cussler's NUMA divers even surveyed the wreckage once.
     In the early 1990s, however, as interest in the Civil War was reaching a fever pitch, some fishermen decided to make a little money.
     Judge said some men began trawling the wrecks, which rest in 65 feet of water, collecting whatever artifacts their nets would snag.
     They weren't real discreet about it. The men tried to sell artifacts in antique malls and in trade magazines. Before long, the FBI, the Navy and Department of Justice took an interest, made a few arrests and confiscated a lot of 19th-century treasures.
     But, unfortunately, the men weren't professionals - the artifacts weren't in good shape.
     "They weren't very discriminating about how they conserved things," Judge said. "Imagine what it would be like if the Hunley were brought up and kept in somebody's garage."
     The looters coated wooden artifacts, still pickled with saltwater, and shellacked them. Some things were just dried out and sent to market. Many of the personal belongings of these Civil War soldiers were almost ruined.
     Eventually, the artifacts were turned over to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. More recently, the museum got a grant to pay for conservation work. And that's when Navy officials reminded them of the Lasch Conservation Center.
     Conservator Philippe de Vivies and Hunley project manager Bob Neyland on Tuesday morning got their first look at the artifacts from the Cumberland and Florida.
     There were several tobacco pipes, some of them ornately carved with figures, a few with oysters stuck to them. On one, salt crystals were bursting out of the wood, destroying pieces of it. When an artifact is submerged in saltwater, the salt has to be washed out by a continuous bath of freshwater - as scientists are doing with the Hunley.
     The alternative to that process can be seen in these artifacts, which are corroding, some of them beyond recognition. A wooden fife is almost unrecognizable.
     "This is why you need professional conservators," Neyland said. "This shows you what happens if you don't do it right."
     De Vivies, who works with chief Hunley conservator Paul Mardikian, said overall the artifacts are not beyond hope.
     "Some things are in pretty good shape, but some materials have chloride from the water left in them, which leads to corrosion," de Vivies said.
     The work will take months, but de Vivies said he believes they can improve the condition of the artifacts.
     Neyland said the Lasch Conservation Center did not set out to become a repository of Civil War artifacts - it's just serendipity. But it was the period of the second-greatest number of ship losses in our history, surpassed only by World War II, and there is great interest.
     These are the artifacts most people want to see preserved.
     The work on the Cumberland and Florida artifacts, as well as the Alabama cannons, is good work for the lab - the contract work pays, helping to defray the costs of the laboratory and conserving the Hunley.
     Ultimately, it is also laying the groundwork for a time when the long-lost Confederate submarine moves to its own museum, leaving the lab that was built for its care to make it own way - and name - in archaeology.


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

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