Chris Caster reviews some lessons learned from Historian and Armstrong alum Michael Jordan’s latest documentary, “From Ironclad to Artifact: The Journey of the CSS Georgia”.
Recovery of the CSS Georgia
I attended the Gray’s Reef Film Festival on February 10, 2018. Historian Michael Jordan’s film entitled “From Ironclad to Artifact: The Journey of the CSS Georgia” was presented that evening in the Trustees Theater. This was an amazing venue with a lot of very excited people that made the evening a blast. Before the film, there was were some introductory remarks by historian and filmmaker, Michael Jordan. If you find the story of the CSS Georgia interesting, further information and the documentary itself can be accessed via the link below.
There are some lessons to be learned from the decades-long effort to recover and preserve the wreck of the CSS Georgia from the edge of the Savannah River. Depending on the size of the site and materials to be recovered, many of these lessons can be applied to future archaeological work in the tidal marshes of coastal Georgia.
The first consideration is safety. Working in the water at the edge of the marsh or digging in the marsh silt itself can be hazardous. The clinging silt provides a significant challenge, making underwater visibility extremely low. The archeologists had to deal with tidal surges that could easily sweep workers away from the site. Underwater work can best be performed only near high or low tide when the waters are relatively still. There is no stable land to support lifting equipment, so they had to work from boats. When they were recovering large artifacts, they needed lifting equipment that was strong enough to pull the artifact out of the silt and lift a considerable weight of silt along with the weight of the artifact.
From the beginning, it is necessary to have adequate tools and technology to record the artifacts’ relative positions before they are moved from the site. This is particularly difficult when the artifacts are embedded in soft mud or submerged in water where they cannot be seen easily. As the site is excavated, the tidal surge moving against the remaining artifacts is likely to cause them to change position. This makes accurate recording of their initial positions relative to each other extremely important.
The salt marsh environment’s lack of oxygen is one reason many of these artifacts have been preserved. Once the artifacts have been brought out of the riverbed, it is necessary to make immediate plans for their preservation or restoration. Any artifacts that cannot be restored immediately should be stored in a low oxygen environment until they can be restored. This is best accomplished by wrapping and labeling them, then burying them underwater in a well-marked and easily accessible location.
The restoration process for most metal artifacts involves first removing any surface accretions. Then conservators use electrolysis to restore the surface chemistry of the artifact. Over a period of a few weeks up to several months, the electrolysis process gradually leaches away surface impurities and repairs some of the corrosion on the surface of the artifact. After electrolysis, the object can be further preserved by applying an epoxy surface coating.
In the case of the CSS Georgia, a large amount of ordnance was recovered – cannonballs and various shells that might still contain explosive charges. Defusing such items and rendering them harmless requires skills of military bomb disposal technicians. Anytime such items are found in a dig it is necessary to leave them undisturbed and wait for professional assistance to handle them safely.
Artifacts made of wood are much more difficult to recover and preserve. A variety of worms and microorganisms will tend to bore into and eat away at the wood. The surface texture of the wood along with its structural integrity will deteriorate over time. In the case of the CSS Georgia, most of the wood recovered had been attached to the iron armor, which supplied support for the wood during the recovery operations.
One final lesson that can be learned from this story is that responsible development can be a friend to archaeology. The motivation and the funding for the recovery of the CSS Georgia came from the project to widen and deepen the Savannah River shipping channel. Although the location of the wreck had been known for many years, funding to remove and preserve it had not become available. Only when the harbor deepening project made its removal necessary could the project receive the necessary funding and support.
See the documentary!