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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.

Before carefully excavating the blocks, the team took x-rays and CT-scan images of them to compile three-dimensional data about the bones, artifacts, and other material.

From this data, the researchers were able to develop a spatial image of where everything was in the submarine before its removal.

Concerns arose about handling the bones, textiles, and other fragile material that were among the artifacts. "Nobody knew how to handle the textile remains," Jacobsen said, adding that the team consulted experts around the world.

In the end, it was decided that the best approach was to remove the material in a controlled lab environment similar to the underwater conditions in which the objects lay for more than a century. The researchers created freshwater tanks outfitted with trays to hold the blocks of material.

Suspended in water, the buoyant textiles, for example, could be safely removed from the sediment by dissolving the mud with gentle streams of water from a syringe, and removing it with a small suction pipe.

The painstaking process enabled the team to separate the human remains and compile an inventory of them.

Intriguing Artifacts

The excavation has turned up a variety of interesting artifacts besides the human remains. Last year, excavators uncovered a gold coin carried by the sub's captain, Lt. George Dixon. Stories had long held that the captain carried such a coin as a good-luck piece after it had saved him from death by a bullet. More recently, Dixon's ornate, gold pocket watch was recovered from a block of sediment. Conservators have not yet opened it to examine the interior and find out whether the contents include an inscription or photo.

"It is also possible that there is a pocket of ancient air trapped in a sealed interior compartment," Jacobsen speculated. "If that is the case, we will attempt to sample the air as well. A pristine sample of air from a secure 1864 date would provide important data to scientists studying atmospheric changes, she said.

From the skeletal remains, the researchers are working to determine each crew member's age, sex, height, and body build. Besides aiding identification, the analysis will provide important clues to injuries, infections, or other conditions—such as wartime malnutrition—that may have affected the soldiers.

In addition, the osteological experts will analyze the skeletal data for this group and compare their individual data with similar data from other Civil War era remains. The purpose is to understand how this group fits statistically with rest of the North American data assembly.

Forensic expert Owsley has said the research might also yield information about the activities of the crew members while they were aboard the doomed vessel. He said he was able to determine from examining the bones, for example, that some of the crew members had been on the submarine longer than the others.

Because the skulls of the soldiers were so well preserved, scientists can do facial reconstructions showing what the crew members might have looked like. That work is expected to be completed about nine months from now.

As the investigations continue, specialists will conduct DNA analysis of the human remains. This data is of particular interest to project genealogist Linda Abrams, who is researching the personal histories and family lineages of each Hunley crew member. Eventually, the DNA materials may be able to link the crew members with their living descendants.

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