Exact number of crew puzzles archaeologists 

Friday, July 27, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff

     New X-rays of the H.L. Hunley's interior suggest that archaeologists still have much to uncover when work inside the Confederate submarine resumes in two months.
     They don't know if they'll figure out this fall why the submarine sank, but they should be able to clear up another lingering question: Exactly how many men were on board when the fish-boat went down?
     In the initial excavation of the Hunley, archaeologists recovered hundreds of bones - and eight skulls. While some Hunley officials believed an X-ray might have shown a ninth skull beneath the crew bench, no one knew for sure.
     Without a complete inventory of bones - impossible with many of them still inside the sub - a ninth skull is the only way to be certain.
     The second phase of the excavation, which will begin by early October, in some ways is about confirmation. The archaeologists believe nothing until they see it - or, more importantly, touch it.
     "Hopefully, some questions will be settled by the fall excavation," Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell said Thursday. "There's a strong possibility the ninth skull is under that bench. If it isn't, we've got another mystery."
     Every historical account of the Hunley listed the submarine's crew complement as nine, and there are nine duty stations.
     But Friends of the Hunley Chairman Warren Lasch points out that everyone believed there were eight cranks for the propeller shaft - something that was proven untrue by the spring dig. There are seven cranks inside the Hunley.
     "Until the excavation is finished, you don't know for sure," Lasch said. "Maybe Dixon captained and pumped the bellows. The ninth man couldn't have cranked, and he would have been more weight. Hopefully by November, we'll know."
     The number of crewmen is a big question, almost as large as why the submarine sank. That answer could be years away. But when archaeologists continue their work this fall, they know they will have more clues from which to draw their conclusions.
     The images taken from the submarine this month confirm what the archaeologists suspected during the spring dig - that the area beneath the bench is target-rich. In X-rays of the bottom of the hull, scientists can see a couple more canteens, a pipe that may have circulated air pumped in from the sub's bellows and a glass bottle beneath the bench.
     "If the crew carried any personal items on board the sub, the bench would be the likely place because of the cramped conditions," said Bob Neyland, the project director.
     The work this fall will concentrate on small areas, but is expected to move slowly. The new evidence indicates that some of the artifacts under the bench are heavily concreted and, as a result, probably stuck to the hull. McConnell said the work should take six to eight weeks, allowing the Warren Lasch Conservation Center to re-open for tours during the holidays.
     Conservators are working now to conserve the most fragile artifacts already recovered from the submarine - such as leather and cloth. And archaeologists are studying finds they made during the three-month dig in the spring.
     McConnell said the discovery of a pencil during the first excavation has raised hopes that there is a logbook of some kind on the submarine. If so, the archaeologists could have more questions answered than they ever imagined.
     But it likely wouldn't tell them the cause of the Hunley's sinking just hours after it sank the USS Housatonic.
     That answer, if it exists, is somewhere inside the submarine, recorded in the artifacts, the muck or the hull itself. Whether archaeologists will ever be able to answer that question remains the Hunley's biggest mystery.
     "She's stingy about her secrets," McConnell said.
Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net.  

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