Civil War Submariners' Teeth Tell Much About the Men

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 19, 2002
A team of forensic scientists and physical anthropologists working to recover and identify the remains of the eight crew members who died 138 years ago on the Civil War submarine Hunley are making some significant advances in their task.

The Hunley sank on February 17, 1864 shortly after it had successfully attacked the Union blockader U.S.S. Housatonic. The sub lay undisturbed in waters off South Carolina until May 1995 when a salvage team funded by author Clive Cussler found it.

The 40-foot-long (12-meter) hull was raised in August 2000 and moved to a specially built lab. Scientists began excavating the sub in January 2001. The work is funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

Forensic Detectives

Two forensic anthropologists, Doug Owsley, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and Richard Jantz, at the University of Tennessee, are leading the forensics work at the Hunley site. Their goal is to recreate the individual identities of each of the eight crew members.

Even without old dental records, a person's teeth can provide a lot of information, and Owsley has been conducting extensive dental examinations.

"The teeth are very instructive," he said. "We had four pipe smokers among the crew. We can clearly tell that from examining their teeth."

Owsley can tell which crew members were pipe smokers by the stains on their teeth and the telltale grooves that show where habitual users positioned their pipes to enjoy a smoke. Four pipes were found among the bones jumbled together on the vessel's silt-covered floor. Owsley is also hoping to figure out which pipe belonged to each of the smokers.

"By examining the teeth and the pipes themselves, we can make a match," he said. "Eventually, when facial reconstructions are being created, I'd like to see some of these crew members portrayed with their own pipes in their mouths."

The Tale Teeth Tell

Surprisingly, the teeth can also provide clues into the working lives of the crew members through "task notches" in the teeth. The teeth of three of the crew show heavy tooth chipping, grooves caused by repeatedly holding objects like needles between the teeth, and artificial gaps created between teeth.

"Some of them were habitually using their teeth for activities like tailoring, which was important for a lot of naval jobs at that time," Owsley explained.

The presence of these clues may aid in reconstructing the life stories of the crew members.

"I think you can tell who had longer service in the Navy, because of the way they were using their teeth as tools," said Owsley. "The men with a Navy background are all chipped up; they have notches in their teeth from repairing sails, splicing and stitching lines, and tailoring and adding ornamental designs to their uniforms."

Gold Fillings Reveal Status and Style

The men's teeth also reveal a wide range of dental conditions and pathology, providing a glimpse of 19th century dental care, and the physical toll exacted by a long and demanding war.

Many of the crew had early stage cavities, a likely result of substandard health care at a time of war. "During the war, these men obviously didn't have a lot of time to get to the dentist—if they could even find a dentist," Owsley said.

Dental work that was probably done before the war started tells the scientists a lot about the wealth and position of the men on the Hunley.

Only two of the sailors had dental fillings. One of them has standard metallic fillings. The Hunley's legendary commander Lt. George Dixon sports fillings of silver amalgam and even gold.

"Gold fillings were a status symbol, as they are in some places today," said Owsley. "Their presence also tells us something about the relative wealth of Dixon, and also supports the historical tradition that paints him as a rather dashing, flamboyant young officer."

The bones of the Hunley crew will yield far more clues about how they lived their lives and who they were. And then the men will finally be buried, with full military honors, at Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery sometime during the fall of 2003.

Related Stories from National Geographic:

The H.L. Hunley: Secret Weapon of the Confederacy
Forensic Team Studying Skeletons of Hunley Crew
U.S. Civil War Sub "Photo" Disproved as Image of Captain
Captain's Remains Found in U.S. Civil War Submarine Captain's "Lucky Coin" Found in Civil War Submarine
Curious Find on Confederate Sub Links North and South

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