Friday, October 23, 2015

Q&A: CSS Georgia archaeologist details surprises, disappointments, discoveries

Julie Morgan with casemate portion (USACE)

The Civil War Picket this week spoke with Julie Morgan, archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, Ga. We asked her about concerted efforts since January to recover the CSS Georgia ironclad, a Confederate vessel, and associated artifacts from the Savannah River as part of a channel-deepening project. Responses have been edited for brevity and organization by topic.

Q. When do you expect mechanized recovery to wrap up?
A. We expect Oct. 23 (today) will be the last day for the mechanized. We are striving for 100 percent coverage of the site. It is highly likely that we will have left some artifacts down there. We are trying to get up as much as we can.

Q. What has been the biggest surprise?
A. The grapple bringing up the (9-inch Dahlgren) cannon is right up there, No. 1. In this part of the project, I am amazed by the variety of artifacts we are getting, with the techniques we are using. This is definitely not the norm to use clamshell or grapple. It would not be how you normally do it (previous phases in the project included retrieval of items by hand, baskets and lifts). We are just finding items from the smallest – a few buttons, marbles -- to 24-foot long foot railroad iron (armor). Machinery, large timbers, we have found the whole spectrum. We are getting a lot of ceramic, whiteware, spoons, everyday items. It is very surprising we are finding such small artifacts and these very large pieces.

Q. The biggest disappointment?
A. We were not able to recover the large casemate section. We are not doing it this time. We just really weren’t prepared with the equipment that we have. We will step back and reassess and come back in the future. We had a methodology, using the best information possible. As we got more involved, we realized the way we had planned was not the best way. We did not have the assets to recover the west and east casemates. We have recovered a few pieces of the east casemate. I think we have some really get data. We can reconstruct a section of the southeast casemate. Although we are using unconventional methods, we are recording everything. We will have a very good idea of how the vessel was constructed: the interior considerations, how the wood backing was put together, a lot more about the vessel itself.

Possible Civil War medallion that may have been attached to strap (USACE)

Q. How have the artifacts, at least preliminarily, informed you of  the operations of the CSS Georgia?
A. I think we can all agree that based on the machinery we have recovered it was definitely underpowered. That was alluded to in archival research. We know just from the pieces. The Georgia was a large and heavy vessel. We are scratching our heads, thinking, ‘Why did they use this (item)?’ A lot has to do with maybe they were using what they could just find, products that were readily available. There is no way to know at this point why they chose what they did. We have no estimate on the ship’s length.

Railroad iron was used for armor (USACE)

Q. Any evidence of measures taken to combat the constant leaking on the Georgia?
A. No. And you have to realize when we find this machinery it is not like the whole engine falls on the deck. There are so many pieces. We will have to figure out how they go together. At this point, we are getting pieces to the puzzle but we have not had chance to do that yet.

Q. How about the life of the crew? Did you find evidence of types of food, alcohol?
A. We have found items that suggest it was a pretty dull assignment. We found marbles and a domino. They had to find ways to keep themselves occupied. We are finding spoons, whiteware (ceramic). We will have an opportunity to look at our large database and we may get a better picture. We are starting to confirm it was a pretty dull assignment. We found bits and pieces of wooden barrels. We have found only one complete bottle of alcohol, for extra porter and ale. I imagine sailors haven’t changed much over the years.

Discovery of Dahlgren was a surprise for some (USACE)

Q. How can you describe the experience the two dozen, mostly young archaeologists are receiving?
A. These are all professional archaeologists. Some may be working on degrees. They do this for a living. If they were all terrestrial archaeologists we would call them “shovelbums” who go around to different projects. This is a very unique project. Because they are young, I can’t say this will be the highlight of their career, but it will rank right up there, working on a Confederate ironclad.

Q. What is like to go through all the muck and debris?
A. Sometimes the pieces are very, very small. It was pretty exciting to find something we can attribute to the CSS Georgia. The buttons are very exciting, as were the bayonet and sword handles. We are getting prehistoric ceramic. The crew is on its hands and knees somedays (on a recovery barge) looking through the muck and clamshell debris.

Hilt for artillery short sword

Q. Can you describe a typical day out on the barges?
A. It’s pretty fast-paced and the crew is very, very efficient. We are averaging 50 to 70 grabs a day. In the areas we are getting heavy machinery and iron it might be a slower day where we may have to use cranes. We have an amazing crew that is dedicated and enthusiastic. It is hard work, manual labor, but it is very rewarding. Saturday, we will start cleaning off the barge and will go back to our base crew that started in January. We will have reburial next week. Some of the final dives will make sure nothing major is missed.  Toward the end of the next week we will take barges off  the site (near Old Fort Jackson) and start unloading.

Q. What’s next?
A. Once we are off site, we will finish up inerting (rendering safe) the ordnance and getting all ordnance to Texas A&M (University) for conservation. We have found with so much (material) it may take in excess of three years for of all the conservation in this project. Archaeologists will start writing up the report and start the analysis of these artifacts. We will have a technical report at the very end of this project.

A shard of recovered pottery (USACE)

Q. When do you expect to research/write a formal analysis? What variables will be included?
A. This is a data recovery project. We are going to be reburying some of the artifacts. We will have to address those artifacts in the report. It will be pretty straightforward. Because of the conditions of the vessel, site, damage, (the remains) not being complete, there may be some questions we may never be able to answer.

Q. What percentage of items will be conserved?
A. I can’t speculate. Items that are unique are going to the conservation lab in Texas. Railroad items that are bent, twisted or are a segment, we bury those. Essentially, if it cannot tell us more of the story it goes back to reburial (in the river).

Q. Recovery has been ongoing for nearly a year. Can you summarize what’s been accomplished?
A. Looking at the sonar images we always had a pretty good idea of what was left of the vessel itself. Through the past few weeks in mechanized we are finding much more about the CSS Georgia. You look at the images, now we are beginning to get pieces that will tell us so much more about this vessel and the people involved.

Ceramic, bottle
Q. How many artifacts recovered thus far?
A. Up to 1,700 before the mechanized phase (which brought in many more). We don’t give individual numbers. We are giving them lot numbers. Our last count was over 50 tons sent to Texas A&M, including five cannons.

Q. Which artifact most speaks to you?
A. We found a bottle very complete. It was one of my favorite artifacts. Just seeing the domino, marbles, things of daily life that these sailors these had or used. We have found so much that after a while it becomes a blur. What day did we find that or this? I like items that help you learn more what life was like for these people, sailors.

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