Friday, June 17, 2005


Holding on to sunken history


Daily Record
By Elisabeth Salemme
June 16, 2005

Anna Sanchez, a conservator at the Cultural
Preservation and Restoration in Newton, works
on halting further deteriation of a cannon from the
HHS Debraak, a Dutch ship that was taken by the British,
and later sunk off of the coast of Lewis, Del. John Bell / Daily Record

NEWTON -- The year is 1780. The place a British war ship.

Two captains, dressed in elaborate deep blue and gold uniforms, are arranging small, intricately designed pieces of lead as they make plans for an attack.

The lead pieces -- known as "flats" or "miniatures" -- are real. They were recovered from a mysterious 200-year-old vessel sunk near Delaware.

The situation is in the imagination of the people working at Cultural Preservation and Restoration (CPR), a one-room, three-person operation based in Newton. CPR is a first stop for items recovered from shipwrecks or dug up from the ground. They do not restore items to their original shape here but they stop the deterioration so that others can return things to their original condition.

"We are trying to halt any further deterioration," said Gary McGowan, president and principal conservator of CPR. "We only use materials that are reversible."

By "reversible," McGowan means that anything he does to or uses on an artifact can be undone. Conservationists are especially wary of reversibility, because they do not want to destroy any cultural elements and "inherent data" of an item.

"We are held to a code of ethics," said McGowan, who is conserving these items for the Delaware State Museum. "The main tenant is the notion of reversibility. We won't do anything that can't be undone."

McGowan, who has a degree in conservation and museum studies through the SUNY school system, has worked as a conservator for more than 18 years. CPR opened in 1992.

These particular items -- the flats -- were used to plan strategy. The flats can be quite detailed, for example a soldier holding a rifle with a plume of smoke and a vessel with sails.

"The flats would have been pretty vibrantly painted in colors that would have matched the uniform at the time," said McGowan.

No one knows the precise year of the shipwreck, which vessel it is or from where it originated, McGowan said.

"We believe the ship is English, but the caveat is that a lot of the materials on board tended to be made in other countries," said McGowan, adding that most archaeologists theorize the ship was a British trade vessel on its way to the colonies.

"Archeologists are currently in the process of cataloguing and understanding the wreck, removing pieces from the ocean slowly."

Among the items found on the vessel were sounding leads. The sounding leads, foot-long hollow lead tubes that are closed at one end, were filled with tallow, a wax-like material. The crew would drop the leads over the edge of the ship. The sticky end would pick up debris to help determine the ship's location in the ocean.

`"As the leads were hauled up, the crew could (also) calculate how deep they were in the ocean," McGowan said.

Also found on the mystery vessel were eight grinding wheels, which were easy-to-make cooking tools. The grinding wheels provide insight into Colonial life; even the most basic pieces of equipment were imported.

"There seemed to be an inability to produce any goods here," McGowan said. "Ceramics, clay pipes, leather shoes -- all these commercial goods were coming into the colonies."

The mysterious sunken vessel is not the only shipwreck CPR helped conserve. Another wreck is the HMS DeBraak, a British ship sent to defend other British ships carrying cargo. It sank in 1787 and was recovered in 1985. Both ships were found near Lewis, Del., a storm-prone area to which many Colonial-era ships fell victim.

The DeBraak was not uncovered by archaeologists, who would have carefully and systematically removed artifacts from the ocean, but by amateur treasure hunters.

"The DeBraak became a very important archaeological site," McGowan said, explaining that before the DeBraak, marine preservation laws were "inadequate."

"The salvagers that excavated the DeBraak made a lot of mistakes, and because of the inadequacies, the federal government realized how poorly recoveries were being done, and they passed nationwide preservation laws. The DeBraak had an unfortunate start, but the (Delaware State) museum has done tremendous work to regain its historic context," McGowan said.

Much more information is available about the DeBraak, which was originally a Dutch ship that was seized, re-gunned and re-masted by the British Navy. More than 27,000 artifacts were recovered from the ship, and McGowan's company has worked on many of them.

One project from the DeBraak has been a four-year effort to conserve 16 cannons recovered from the vessel. McGowan is currently finishing the last cannon and the process to conserve it will take more than one month.

"They are all carronade-style cannons, which was usually used for short distances or close-range ship-to-ship firing," McGowan said.

The cannons each weigh more than one ton, and most were still loaded when the DeBraak was recovered, McGowan said.

The cannons, which have become heavily corroded over hundreds of years, arrived at CPR in large fiberglass tanks.

The conservation team then used a variety of innovative, improvisational methods to remove the corrosion, which became so severe that the hollow of the cannons were completely filled.

"When we get the cannons, they are entombed in corrosion," McGowan said. "The corrosion was inches thick -- to the point where we couldn't even determine that it's a cannon."

As iron deteriorates, its alloys break down into graphitic iron, which is much more fragile and soft than the iron of the once-indestructible weapons, McGowan said.

"We used half of a post-hole digger, because it just happens to fit perfectly in the cannon," McGowan said. "We raided garden-supply catalogues for different tools that would work."

If the conservation team had hit the cannon too forcefully with a hand chisel, it could have chipped off a chunk of the cannon.

"It all comes back to being as non-invasive as possible," McGowan said. "Salts, accumulated and absorbed by the cannons from their time in the ocean, must be removed from the metal using cathodic desalination."

After being cleaned and desalinated, the cannons were coated with tannic acid to create a protective barrier on the surface, which turned the cannons black. The cannons were then coated with acrylic and wax for both protective and aesthetic reasons.

"All aspects of the DeBraak have been unique and interesting," said McGowan, who will continue to help conserve both shipwrecks for years to come.


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