Conserving for the Ages
At the Texas A&M RELLIS Campus, a 9,600-pound Dahlgren cannon, hoisted from its grave in the Savannah River, basks in a sea of hydrogen bubbles, the result of electrolysis. The side armor from its ship, the Confederate ironclad, CSS Georgia, bathes in a preservative vat nearby. NAP master’s student Dhillon Tisdale ’20 worked away with a pneumatic chisel, removing encrustations from the ship’s steam engine.
It’s a day in the life at the Conservation and Research Laboratory (CRL), started by professor and lab director Donny Hamilton in 1978. As a contract lab and learning hub for students, the CRL works with a variety of academic institutions, museums, historical societies, government entities and private conservators, taking on large, complex archaeological projects year-round.
“No one concentrates to the degree that we do on maritime archaeology,” Hamilton said. “We’ve built this laboratory up to where it’s capable of doing very large, multiyear projects, dealing with tons of material at a time.”
All manner of projects come here, but perhaps the best known is the monumental 18-year-long conservation of material recovered from La Belle, a 17th century French ship that wrecked in Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast in 1686. Additionally, some 17,500 artifacts from the CSS Georgia have come to the lab with 11,000 conserved to date. Other artifacts being conserved include a 34-foot-long dugout canoe found in a riverbank along the Red River in Louisiana, constructed by the Caddo people between 800 and 1,000 years ago.
Remains of a wood ship found 30 feet below street level under the World Trade Center, where the Twin Towers once stood, found their way to CRL too. Parts used to make up its frame rest in a preservative chemical bath, plucked from a mud-packed grave.
“When students come to CRL, we put them to work,” said Christopher Dostal ’15 ’17, associate director of the lab. “We make sure they get a variety of experiences. Students generate tons of research on these artifacts.”
“Mud and grime get generated too,” said Hamilton, known for two sayings around the lab. “If you didn’t get dirty doing it, you didn’t do it here. And if you didn’t get dirty doing it, it wasn’t worth doing.”
“Both sites possess tight amphorae piles—earthenware containers of antiquity—that indicate wooden ship remains may exist beneath them,” Ruff explained. “The Joni wreck consisted almost entirely of North African amphoras that were produced in modern Tunisia, giving clues that the wreck likely happened in the fourth century A.D.,” he said. The Joni wreck will undergo exploratory excavation in 2020.
“We may be homegrown, but we’re everywhere,” said INA president and NAP associate professor Deborah Carlson, a classical archeologist specializing in trade and seafaring in the ancient Mediterranean.
“Colleagues around the country and around the globe have said that, for them, nautical archaeology and Texas A&M are synonymous,” she continued. “All of our students are following some deep-seated curiosity or fascination with maritime history or our seafaring past. There’s something about the ancient world that burns within them.”
INA, with NAP graduate students, has excavated shipwrecks in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. “We have students going to Turkey, Albania, Spain, Egypt, Italy, Croatia and all over North America,” Carlson said. “Any given summer, we have people working at the furthest corners of the globe. Here’s this little program at a major university, but we have connections all over the place and are doing great things all around the world. It makes it exciting to come to work every day."
Shipwrecks are like time capsules, windows to an ancient past, she said, citing the Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck in Turkey that George Bass initiated the excavation of in 1984. His meticulous 11-year excavation with NAP professor Cemal Pulak ’87 ’96 revealed that a complex, sophisticated maritime trade network between far-spread ancient cultures existed more than three millennia ago.
“Without George Bass, there would be no nautical archaeology discipline,” said Carlson. “He’s the reason the nautical archaeology program and INA exist. He’s the nexus.”
BASS LOOKS BACK
If shipwrecks are the great mystery of the sea, Bass is the great detective.
“It’s not treasure hunting; you don’t go digging willy-nilly,” said Bass, NAP’s professor emeritus, who set the standards for nautical archaeology as the first person to excavate an ancient shipwreck in its entirety on the sea bed. Time magazine has recognized him in its “Great Scientists” edition along with the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Galileo Galilei.
That first-ever scientific underwater excavation, of a late Bronze Age vessel off the Turkish coast in 1960, inspired Bass’s brainchild, INA, leading to the creation of the institute’s Bodrum Research Center in Turkey. The research center is housed in an ancient castle, also home to the country’s Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Outfitted with dorms and a library, NAP students and faculty spend summers at the research center, surveying, excavating and studying the region’s shipwrecks.
“The best thing I ever did was bring INA to Texas A&M,” said Bass. “The field opportunities for students are invaluable. All these ancient shipwrecks, they are the great detective story.” There is no dearth of study material, he added. “We are well on our way to excavating a wreck from every century of the past since the 16th century B.C., and their cargoes and personal possessions have already provided important new information for the histories of literacy, weaponry, religion, tools, music, glass, ceramics, metallurgy, diets, maritime commerce and even the birth of capitalism. The future is exciting and boundless!"
To support Texas A&M’s efforts in nautical archaeology, contact Larry Walker ’97 at email@example.com or (979) 458-1304.