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Preservation takes painstaking patience


Sunday, May 13, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


     Paul Mardikian arranges a tray full of buttons, tobacco pipes, thimbles and bottles until he seems satisfied with their order.
     The French scientist then carefully turns over a candle holder embedded in hardened sand, explaining features imprinted in the concretion.
     He gently sets down the holder, then grabs a sports water bottle, takes aim at the relics and squirts down the entire lot.
     You must keep them wet, he says.
     Such is the life of a conservator. Mardikian, the senior preservation expert on the Hunley project, seems to enjoy the meticulous care of fragile, historical relics. It's a good thing. He's going to be doing it for a while.
     "If we can do this work in 10 years, we'll be doing good," he says with a shrug.
     Mardikian is a laid-back scientist. In his field, patience isn't a virtue - it's a job requirement.
     As the excavation of the Confederate submarine nears its end, the work moves to the lab of the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. There, Mardikian and a small team will work for years to refurbish hundreds of artifacts recovered from the interior of the Hunley.
     Textiles conservators from the Smithsonian will assist in the work, forensic scientists from Washington to Alabama will be brought in and other experts will be consulted.
     But ultimately, the slow lonely work of preserving these artifacts will fall to Mardikian and a small team of scientists.
     It is painstaking work, often done with dental tools. It is slow work, as many of the waterlogged prizes must be freeze-dried. Some of these artifacts - including the submarine itself - will have to simmer in chemicals for years before there is any chance of displaying them in a dry museum.
     The toughest work comes first. Under the white lights of the sterile laboratory - a state-of-the-art facility filled with X-ray machines, freezers, orthoscopic cameras and gamma ray machines - the scientists first will study the hundreds of artifacts found inside the submarine.
     "You have to understand it first before you can conserve it," Mardikian says.
     Mardikian has a plethora of fancy tools to help him with that. Some of the more crusty items are X-rayed, to give scientists a peek at what's behind the hardened muck. They can be measured by their X-ray images, using computers.
     Then come hours of cleaning, using tiny instruments that, for example, have to dredge the silt out of the indentations in raised letters on coat buttons. The dress rehearsal for this tedious business has come inside the submarine, where Mardikian spent 15 hours chiseling out the candle holder that had fused to the bottom of the Hunley's hull.
     Right now, they keep most of the artifacts in containers resembling Tupperware bowls, where each is tagged with an identification number that begins with the letters "HL." Eventually, some of the artifacts will be freeze-dried, the ice vacuumed out of their containers.
     With some work, most of these pieces will be sturdy enough to display dry, under glass. The submarine itself may have to sit in a humidor. When preservation is finished, the artifacts will sit in climate-controlled rooms until they are exhibited.
     The artifacts of the lost submarine could hardly be in better hands. Mardikian has worked on the relics of 50 shipwrecks, including Titanic. Like the famed luxury liner, Mardikian says the Hunley poses some interesting preservation questions.
     Some artifacts recovered from the Titanic weren't completely restored - they were left stained, or partially covered with hardened silt. Perhaps, Mardikian muses, some Hunley artifacts should be treated the same way. That would help people understand the conditions in which the artifacts lay buried for more than a century. It could show how they were preserved so well.
     Mardikian does not yet know how he will handle everything. But then, he's got plenty of time to figure it out.


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