New facts, theories emerge after phase one of excavation


Sunday, June 10, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


     First the candle went out, the flame shrinking into its wick until there wasn't even a notion of precious light inside the cramped interior.
     Cold condensation formed on the iron walls, and the only sound was that of underwater currents outside, surging around the hull.
     Inside it was dry, quiet, almost peaceful.
     And there, it all ended for the crew of the H.L. Hunley. n
     Nearly a year after it broke the Atlantic surface, after six months of studying its hull and three months of excavating its interior, the Hunley's greatest mystery stubbornly refuses to give itself up.
     Why did the world's first successful attack submarine sink?
     It is a question that continues to haunt archaeologists. There has been no smoking gun, no irrefutable fact that points to a single end for the crew in the hours following its sinking of the USS sloop of war Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864.
     But the facts that have turned up seem initially to point to a peaceful end for the nine men, like going to sleep in the dark. Still, no one yet has any idea why the sub ended up in that situation on the bottom of the ocean.
     Did the Hunley submerge to avoid the rush of Yankee ships coming to the rescue of the Housatonic's crew? Was Lt. George E. Dixon and his crew waiting on the tide to turn?
     Did the submarine become stuck on the bottom or did the crew lose track of time in the dark and ultimately, lose consciousness?
     Those questions could come in the next year, or they may never be answered.
     Actually, it's no surprise the mystery of the sinking has not been solved yet. Since its discovery, the Hunley has been reluctant to give up its secrets. Besides, archaeological work often takes years, as the clues are so slight, so hidden in the muck of time that it takes months of analysis to even understand what's there.
     The Hunley is just another example that quick answers are hard to come by in science.
     "There is still a lot of exploring to do to get the whole story," says Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley. "There's still a lot of exciting work to go."
     The ongoing investigation, though, partially obscures a mountain of finds and discoveries about the submarine's operation that have been mined from the encrusted, hand-cranked submarine.
     A year ago, no one was really sure what the submarine looked like. No one knew where the spar was attached, or how it worked. With nothing to go by but contradictory historical accounts, scientists didn't even know for sure that crew members all sat on one side.
     They weren't even positive there would be nine crew members onboard.
     But the initial archaeological dig into the Hunley has unearthed a treasure chest of information. The remains of the submarine's entire crew have been recovered, its propulsion system verified.
     More importantly, scientists have unearthed the artifacts - the blue lamp, Lt. George E. Dixon's gold coin - that prove the legends surrounding the Hunley are true.
     And there have been unexpected surprises - an air circulation system operated with a bellows, a Union soldier's identification tag onboard - that have raised more questions about the mysterious fish-boat. Even the shape of the submarine, as sleek and hydrodynamic as a modern missile, was an astounding discovery.
     Scientists will not continue their exploration of the submarine until the fall. Chief archaeologist Maria Jacobsen says it's important to study the data they collected in the three-month marathon dig before proceeding to the bulkhead controls of the submarine. Those areas remain covered in sediment.
     This summer Jacobsen and the other scientists will X-ray those areas to get an idea of what they will uncover next.
     "It's important to understand all that we have before we continue the excavation, or we're doing it blind," she says. "This is still a work in progress. But there are so many interesting questions we may be able to answer."
     While scientists pore through the data and continue the excavation looking for answers to the remaining questions, some appear to have been answered by what they haven't found. For instance:
     The fact that all crew members were found at their duty stations makes a slight dent in the single-bullet theory, which contends the hole in the sub's front conning tower was shot out by small arms fire from the Housatonic during the attack.
     Under that scenario, either Dixon was shot - he looked out the forward view ports while steering the sub - and the Hunley drifted out of control, or water that got in the crew compartment through the hole threw off its neutral buoyancy, causing it to sink.
     If either of those events had occurred, there most likely would have been a mad scramble to take the control from Dixon, or to get out of the sub. Neither happened, given the placement of the bodies. And Dixon's skull showed no obvious signs of trauma.
     Scientists are still looking for the fragments of the broken front conning tower before they say decisively whether it was shot out, but already the theory is losing some cache among scientists.
     A quick look at the evidence points to a very calm end for the crew, perhaps death from oxygen deprivation. Anoxia, it's called.
     Archaeologists have found evidence the hull was filled with air for some time after the sinking, and that the hull breaches may have come later.
     The proof is persuasive. There are signs that the crew compartment did not have water in it until years, even decades, after the sinking. In water, the crew's remains would have floated, co-mingling the remains scientists found. That didn't happen. The positioning of the remains is consistent with crew members simply blacking out when they ran out of air.
     Even more telling, archaeologists found stalactites hanging from the interior's roof. A stalactite, an icicle-shaped deposit of carbonite, only forms over time by dripping water. That means they can't form in water. Scientists have theorized that the water to form those stalactites, most only a few inches long, could have leaked in at joints or around rivets. For those to form, the inside of the submarine would have had to be dry for several years.
     And, so far, the archaeologists have found no proof that the three holes in the submarine are contemporary to its sinking.
     The only problem with that theory is that it doesn't explain what caused the Hunley to be stuck on the ocean floor.
     More clues will come this fall when the archaeologists begin the second phase of the excavation. They hope to learn more about the Hunley crew's final moments after they uncover and remove the concretion from the submarine's ballast tank controls.
     The position of the seacocks will tell what the crew was doing when the sub sank. When archaeologists uncover the bolts to the keel weights, they'll learn whether the men were trying to drop weight to surface.
     Lasch said he is most interested in learning more about the human story of the Hunley. He looks forward to opening the storage boxes scientists believe are beneath the crew bench. He believes they could find wallets, eyeglasses, photos and other mementos.
     And there is this. Archaeologists have found a number of pencils on board, something they would not have carried if there was no need for them.
     Perhaps, Lasch said, the crew kept a ship's log. A find like that - beyond the wildest dreams of the scientists - could fill in many of the blanks in the Hunley's story.
     But even a ship's log would probably not answer the ultimate question.

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



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