Tuesday, August 9, 2016

For CSS Georgia conservator, artifact scoops in river meant having to make choices

Archaeologists wash off  railroad iron used as armor (USACE photo)

Each time a scoop of CSS Georgia artifacts landed last year on the deck of a barge in the Savannah River, Jim Jobling made a decision.

A “CRL” finding meant the item was going to Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory for long-term conservation. Landing in the “R” pile meant that artifact from the Confederate ironclad was destined for river reburial.

“Anything that was unique and could add to our database of knowledge we kept,” said Jobling, the lead conservator during the removal of the wreck under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Nothing unique was thrown away.”

Grapple used during mechanized recovery (USACE)

Jobling spoke of time constraints and salvage archaeology at a recent symposium at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga.

During the mechanized recovery phase of the CSS Georgia, two dozen archaeologists -- equipped in boots and safety helmets and using hoses and rakes -- sifted through muddy piles of metal and wood brought up by a five-finger grapple and a clamshell scoop.

The daily yield was incredible: Pieces of casemate, an 1841 percussion pistol (below), telescope tube, shoes, buttons, champagne bottles, bayonet handles and hundreds of other items, including a massive 9-inch Dahlgren, somewhat of a surprise find.

(USACE photo)

Michael Jordan, who is making a documentary about the project for the Corps, told the audience that “scooping at the end is where the honey pot is.”

He described Jobling, who works for Texas A&M, as master of a “ballet of artifacts moving around.”

Jobling used PowerPoint slides at the symposium to summarize a typical lift. In this case it was G54 -- a load brought up by the grapple in mid-September 2015.

The CRL pile in that lift included an anvil, a gear piece, chain, caulking hammers and wood from a bucket. The R pile included broken fasteners and twisted pieces built below the CSS Georgia’s railroad armor. “Bent wood won’t tell me anything,” said Jobling.

Items that were kept (top), items that were reburied

Archaeologists and conservators made a photographic record for each of 2,200 scoops and lifts.

The mechanized recovery followed large-artifact recovery, during which Navy divers brought up ordnance, guns, casemate and a propeller. For the mechanized phase, the barge crew and scientists had images that showed them exactly where to scoop or scour the river bottom about 40 feet below.

“There were always surprises,” Jobling said in a recent phone interview. “In a zero visibility environment, you don’t have a grasp on everything.”

In an ideal world, archaeologists want to keep all artifacts, he said. But with limited funding and time for the CSS Georgia recovery (it is being moved so that the vital shipping channel in Savannah can be deepened), choices had to be made.

(Interestingly, many items were pieces of Native American earthenware that may have drifted down the river and settled in the wreck site).

While 140 tons of material was shipped, nearly that much was reburied in the Savannah River.

Jobling and the others worked six days a week and long hours during the mechanized recovery. “Every day, something new was found,” he said. “We were filthy at the end of the day.”

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