Monday, September 14, 2015

Scoop and grapple: New phase of CSS Georgia recovery bringing rush of artifacts

The grapple in action on Sept. 15 (Courtesy of USACE)

A dozen young archaeologists, 150-year-old chunks of iron and wood and an inexhaustible supply of mud are the ingredients for what could be an exciting new phase in the recovery of the CSS Georgia in the Savannah River.

A team working from two barges a couple miles east of downtown Savannah, Georgia, on Monday used a device called a five-finger grapple to bring up artifacts and pieces of the Civil War ironclad.

They brought up 13 loads from the glistening water, said archaeologist Jim Jobling, a project manager with Texas A&M University’s Conservation Laboratory. He has been on the site for several months as the recovery has progressed.

“It is very, very exciting, a real wide array was recovered,” Jobling said from a barge during a late-afternoon phone call.

Just Monday, the archaeologist brought up ceramics, a brass door handle, gun carriage pieces, hinge parts, parts of two shoes and hooks for hanging coats.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the recovery of the remnants of the Confederate ironclad as part of a harbor deepening project, calls this the mechanized phase. It follows hand retrieval of artifacts by contract divers and the recovery of large items by a U.S. Navy salvage team.

Machinery parts from river bottom on Sept. 15
An anvil amid pieces of timber (Photos: USACE)

The grapple and a clamshell scoop are in place after the departure of the Navy team, which was on site for about two months. So far, at least 1,750 artifacts have been recovered this year.

“MDSU (Mobile Diving Salvage Unit) 2 did a fantastic job salvaging large artifacts and casemate sections from the wreck,” said Jobling. “Their help was invaluable to the archaeologists and we would not have been able to do it without them.”

Navy divers completed their work Sept. 9, said Corps spokesman Russell Wicke. 

Mechanized recovery is scheduled to last through late October, officials said. “Our teams have done, and continue to do an excellent job in this recovery process,” said Wicke.

Conditions for diving and salvage operations have been challenging.

Navy divers, working in low visibility, heavy currents and brief diving windows, brought up the vessel’s four remaining cannon, 133 pieces of ordnance, a propeller with attached shaft, remaining parts of the propulsion system and more than 43,500 pounds of small casemate sections.

But there are at least another 100 tons of the CSS Georgia strewn across the river bottom, Jobling said. While the Navy was able to get much of the casemate, there’s more to go. And officials expect to find many additional artifacts.

The CSS Georgia was part of the so-called Savannah Squadron, which included the ironclads Atlanta, Savannah and Milledgeville. The leaky ship lacked much engine power and became a floating battery as part of the city’s defenses. Its Confederate crew scuttled the ironclad in December 1864 shortly before Federal forces took the city.

Jobling said the grapple is dropped into archaeological “squares” on the river bottom. The crew also places the grapple on the intersection of four squares so that it picks up additional pieces of the ship. 
The grapple’s jaw closes by gravity and it is brought to the surface.

Remnants of a CSS Georgia gun carriage (U.S. Navy)

“It lands on the concrete deck of the barge and we have a partition and we have a fire hose and sluice all the mud through the screen,” said Jobling.

Sometimes, only five artifacts may be found in the pile of muck. Other times, there are dozens of items inside. But the volume of artifacts has increased markedly with the introduction of the grapple.

The dozen archaeologists, some of whom are working on their masters degrees, received additional training on the barges and are helping separate artifacts from the mud.

“They are young, bright and extremely motivated,” said Jobling. “Today is the roller coaster because you are downhill when the artifacts start coming in. Wow. How do we start processing?”

Not all of the items brought up will be conserved. Those that don’t make the cut, such as broken pieces or twisted piping, will be reburied.

Dredging for the harbor deepening, meanwhile, officially began Monday in the outer channel off Tybee Island.

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