Forensic Team Studying Skeletons of Hunley Crew

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 13, 2002

The skeletons of the crew members of the U.S. Civil War submarine Hunley are undergoing what senior archaeologist Maria Jacobsen calls "a full-blown forensics examination" 138 years after the Confederate sub sank in waters off South Carolina.

The analysis is part of efforts to compile the personal histories of the men who died on the submarine, which sank for unknown reasons on February 17, 1864, shortly after it attacked and sank the Union blockader U.S.S. Housatonic.

The full investigation may take more than a year to complete. Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee are leading the forensics work.

A major goal of the Hunley project is to distinguish eight soldiers and their remains using forensic and skeletal data and existing archaeological records, and to combine this with historical and genealogical information available about each crew member.

Organizers of the Hunley project say that once the human remains of the soldiers have been analyzed, they will be buried with full military honors at Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, expected to take place in the fall of 2003.

Continuing Excavation

The sunken Hunley lay undisturbed on the bottom of the sea until May 1995, when a team funded by author Clive Cussler discovered the intact 40-foot-long (12-meter-long) hull. The sub had been buried at a 45-degree angle under a layer of silt.

The hull was raised in August 2000 and excavation of the sub, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, has been underway since January 2001.

Before any forensic work could be done on human remains, Maria Jacobsen and her team had to figure out a way to safely remove them from the hull, which was filled with muddy sediment and a variety of textiles and artifacts.

"There are no textbooks on how to raise a Civil War submarine intact from the bottom of the sea," said Jacobsen from the Hunley Project's South Carolina headquarters.

Excavation of the very fragile contents from inside the cramped sub was complicated, so the team removed blocks of material, which were transferred to a scientific lab.

Continued on Next Page >>


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