Remains may provide images of crewmen
Wednesday, February 28, 2001
BY SCHUYLER KROPF AND BRIAN HICKS
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
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
"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."
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