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.

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