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Conservation Field School… Or, what I did on my spring break

March 31st, 2011

Conservation Field School… Or, what I did on my spring break—

 by Laurel Seaborn

(all text and photos)

I learned about tannic acid. It may stain but it does the job in conservation!

Let me start at the beginning. Though my friends invited me to go diving in the Keys, I decided to go to Fort Fisher at Kure Beach, NC, to do a conservation field school. Our task, to examine artifacts from the shipwreck of the blockade runner Modern Greece. We survived it and may I say we were even applauded for our efforts under our fearless leader, ECU conservator Susanne Grieve.

 The newspapers published several articles about the details, but so far none of us students has come forward to tell the inside story of our task. Until now… All I can say is if you have an aversion to dirt and grime, read no further! Luckily, our team leaders thought of the important things when they loaded up the trailer of supplies: boxes and boxes of blue nitrile gloves.


Emily Powell keeping the artifacts wet (note gloves).

Though navy divers recovered the artifacts from the shipwreck in the 1960s, conservators chose only a few of the more presentable pieces for conservation to allow for museum display. Since the 1970s, most of the objects remained in their tanks filled with water and organic materials, which seems to have created a stable environment for the waterlogged materials. This bath of muck and leaves transformed to a tannic acid and became a preservation method in itself. Now we needed to disturb them, and help them on their way to further conservation, analysis, or use as teaching tools depending on their condition.

 In order to do a good job of this project Susanne, and the team leaders Nicole Wittig, Emily Powell, and Kate Schnitzer, sorted us into an efficient machine each with our designated motions to keep it all flowing. Handlers would get the artifacts, Photographers took the pictures, Recorders catalogued and determine the condition of the object, and the Taggers/Baggers attached the tag and assisted in transporting the objects to new tanks of water.


First you pick it up, put it on the plywood, spray spray…

We set up in a small courtyard on a concrete pad, with numerous tables for laptop computers and other electronics like cameras that needed to stay dry and clean. We spread out our instruments of documentation: pens, white boards, rule sticks, zip ties, all that we needed to coordinate the efforts. We were ready to dig in.

And yes, that tannic muck got everywhere, but mostly on the Handlers. They were warned to bring their rubber boots! The Handlers groped about in the tanks wearing gloves that came up to the armpits, assisted by lead conservator Nathan Henry. They pulled out the artifacts, placed them on plywood to allow for a rinse down with a sprinkler-headed hose, and carried them to the next station. , as they removed the artifacts the tank level lowered, until it required climbing into the depths about four feet down to lift the objects out.


Nathan Henry and BJ Howard examining some bits and pieces.

I worked as a Photographer, placing the object on a white plastic sheet, writing the catalog number on the white board and standing on a ladder over the table or distant ground to get the angle for the shot. Civil war rifles, gun boxes, chisels, knives, spoons, hoes, and picks, all set out next to the measuring rule to show some scale. In the rhythm of artifact after artifact, I lost track of time except as passing shadows through the tree branches above us. Until lunch…


The little ladder to stand on (Wittig and LK Schnitzer).

The generosity of our hosts extended to large quantities of food, coffee break snacks, pizza, and sandwiches. They also arranged for us to stay nearby in quaint cottages, ours was painted coral between the pastel pinks and blues and greens. Next morning, I walked the beach to get to Fort Fisher, though I admit the physical work of the day before ached in many a muscle.


Pick a pick, any pick… (Valerie Rissel)

While photographing the artifact, the Recorders assign a catalog number, take down the details, and assess each object or clump of them. Is it one gun or two concreted together? Does it need immediate attention? Is that coral growth or a sailor’s palm? All this updated information became part of the documentation of the collection.

After all this, the Tagger/Baggers, put on a Mylar tag, and took the object to a trailer for the short drive to the new tanks. The conservator readied two tanks, which we soon filled, and then added a third plus several buckets to ensure more objects could make the transfer to their new temporary home.


Jones and Schnitzer loading Civil war rifles.

With all the large objects removed from the first tank, I volunteered to climb into the bottom to rake through the black slurry. The water pump chugged away the remainder of the liquid as I used a pitchfork to lift out the leaves and anything possibly hidden in them. Periodically, the leaves clogged the sieve on the pump intake until I scooped them away. Mostly I found acorns and pebbles, but occasionally a clink brought up a metal object.

Finally, I donned the to-the-armpit gloves and bent down to feel through the muck. Dang my aching back (and knees and shoulders), nothing would stop me. With my face that close to the surface I gagged on the smell of rotting leaves, but managed to complete my search pattern finding one more bit of knife blade.

Pulling off my gloves, I found a hole. My right pointer finger was completely black, and despite scrubbing in soap and water, it stayed that way for the rest of the day. My jeans after washing remain well ingrained with tannic acid splotches. One student commented that it would be best to burn her clothes on returning home, but I see it as another experiment in the preservative properties of tannic acid. I hypothesize that my jeans will decay and only the stains will remain.

07-DirtyPantsThe dirtiest jeans! (center leg is Grieve)

So all in all the work on the spring conservation field school did nothing that a good hot bath and a massage couldn’t cure, and I have memories of the Civil War artifacts from the wreck of Modern Greece that far outweigh minor inconveniences like a stained finger.

General Conservation

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