Martha Zierden

Hunley lab stabilizes artifacts

By Robert Behre - The Sun News

Sometimes, archaeologists don't want to find certain artifacts because they don't have the money to properly care for them.

That was partly the case last year, as archaeologists with the Charleston Museum, assisted by College of Charleston students, explored the wet muck at the bottom of one of the city's earliest walls.

"It was a worry," said archaeologist Martha Zierden. "Conservation is a long and expensive process."

Their dig did unearth a few dozen soggy leather shoe remnants and other pieces of wood that had been well-preserved by the anaerobic environment of the wet clay.

If the water in the wood and leather wasn't replaced gradually, the items would fall apart.

So the Walled City Task Force turned to Clemson's Conservation Center for help.

It took a year, but the lab - created to analyze and conserve the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley that was salvaged off the coast in August 2000 - was able to use its equipment to stabilize the leather, a few small wooden pieces and a metal tube believed to be either a tool or a gun.

Zierden and Katherine Saunders of the Historic Charleston Foundation recently retrieved the conserved items from Clemson's head conservator Paul Mardikian. The items included a leather sole held together with wooden pegs. Another sole that had metal nails is preserved in a sealed envelope with silica gel.

"This should be stable," Mardikian said of the artifacts. "You shouldn't have any problems with them for a number and number and number of years."

The lab conservation work took several steps over the course of a year.

Mardikian said while the Hunley is the lab's primary focus, he was happy it can provide an occasional gift to the wider community. He understood that the archaeology can carry risk if a dig unearths items that are costly to conserve.

"Any excavation is like a Pandora's box," Mardikian said. "You open it and you'll never know what you'll find."

Clemson handled all the waterlogged artifacts except for two large timbers sent to a special lab in Maryland.

The leather and wooden fragments represent just a tiny slice of the tens of thousands of artifacts unearthed during the 2008 and 2009 digs at South Adgers Wharf and East Bay Street.

Zierden said the cataloguing of those artifacts, taken from some 300 separate sections, is almost finished, and a full report could be done next year.