Friends of the Hunley

Hunley Artifact Collection: Personal Artifacts

Hunley Artifact Collection - Personal Artifacts

Conservation is extremely important in the field of underwater archaeology. The uncontrolled exposure to air of any material recovered from a marine environment can lead to irreversible damage and the disastrous loss of archaeological data.

Organic materials such as leather, wood, textile, rope and plant remains, if allowed to dry without conservation treatment, they can crumble and collapsed in a matter of hours. Iron and other metals on the other hand, can last for a few days or months depending on the size and density of the artifact. But they will eventually deteriorate, corrode and fall apart. These reactions are due to a sudden break in the equilibrium reached by the artifact after years of submersion in water (as they are excavated). The main goals of conservation, therefore, are to provide archaeologists and conservators with the proper tools and techniques to handle, store, stabilize, and study the recovered artifacts.

This collection is comprised of a selection of artifacts excavated from the submarine and that were used by the crew members. Most of these artifacts were found nearby the crew members or in crew member's pockets. The commander of the submarine, Lt. George Dixon, carried a 20 dollar engraved gold coin in his pocket as well as a pair of binoculars, a gold pocket watch, and a pocket knife; and as part of his garments, silver suspenders and vest buckles. The rest of the crew members carried with them pocket knives, a wallet, pipes, matches, toothpicks, pencils and a variety of objects for everyday use. Also included are clothing accessories such as buttons and shoes as well as cork canteen stoppers.  

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Hunley Artifact Collection: Submarine Components & Tools

Hunley Artifact Collection – Submarine Components & Tools

The submarine H.L. Hunley represents one of the most complex composite structures ever recovered by an archaeological team. The exterior hull is comprised of wrought-iron plates of various sizes, several cast-iron fittings and glass view-ports.

While the Hunley was lost at sea, it was going through a series of physical and chemical changes. Salts from the sea water slowly penetrated the iron hull creating a series of changes that if left untreated the submarine would rust and crumble within a matter of months. It took nearly 150 years for the salts to become integrated in the structure so it will take a little while before they can be extracted.

The submarine has sat in a tank of fresh water under an impressed current system, since it was recovered in 2000 in an effort to stop further corrosion of the iron. Upon recovery the submarine also sat in a 45 degree angle, the same position as it was found. This kept its contents undisturbed and allowed for a more accurate excavation. In 2010 the submarine was rotated into an upright position so scientists could access the starboard side and also to begin the painstaking job of removing the hard crust of concretion (a mixture of shells, sand and silt) covering the submarine’s hull.

Several components of the submarine have been removed over the years in order to be treated and conserved separately. The collection shown here is an example of some of these components ranging from wrought iron plates, rivets, bolts, tools, viewing ports and some organic materials such as the crew member’s bench, and Lt. Dixon’s seat.

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