Category Archives: Conservation

Updates from the Lab

While our beautiful new Maritime Archaeology and Education Center (MAEC) was being built, conservation was disassembled and all artifacts were put into a state of monitored wet storage. Taking those items out of storage and getting conservation back on track has been a slow and detailed process. This process requires an inventory and condition analysis of all items, as well as setting up each area of conservation in order for treatments to begin.

Though we are not quite running at 100% yet, we have made great leaps and bounds. Part of our inventory includes new items recovered from our current shipwreck, Anniversary.  Since everything was essentially put straight into a holding pattern, we are just now starting to analyze the items we recovered last summer. In fact, dredge spoil from the site is still being sorted and new items are being discovered daily.

One of our biggest challenges is to discern what items, if any, are contained within the concretions we recover. Conservation is expensive, so we must focus on items that can answer certain research questions, like the time period or the nationality of the vessel. One way for us to do this is through X-ray analysis. While x-rays won’t show 100% of what is contained within a concretion, they do show us a lot visually and help us narrow our conservation focus.

X-rays allow us to look into concretions without damaging the items inside. This particular X-ray shows a padlock.

Due to the generosity of Doctors Eric Searcy, DMV and John Yselonia, DMV at Antigua Veterinary Practice, we can now begin to take our own x-rays! They donated their previous machine for us to use in our MAEC building, and we have just begun to analyze last summer’s concretions.

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Over 25 brass tacks were found using our new X-ray machine!

Our very first in-house X-ray proved to be exiting for more reasons than just being our first X-ray.  Inside the concretion are more than 25 brass furniture tacks, something we have not encountered on our previous wreck sites, and an iron padlock. We are uncertain if either of these items will help us better date or identify this wreck, but it is always exciting to reveal what history has left us.

Contributed by Director of Archeological Conservation Starr Cox, edited by Social Media Specialist Daniel Lee

Discoveries at the Barracks

The World War II-era United States Coast Guard (USCG) structure on site is currently being restored after serving as office space for many years at the Museum. The structure was constructed after the US entered into World War II. Before December 1941, the US military was in various stages of mobilization that included increasing military personnel, munitions and equipment.

The official telegram that head keeper Daniels received, which initiated a military mobilization plan that officially directed the US Navy to absorb the USCG (note that this occurs in November 1941 before the Pearl Harbor attack).

As war was declared, there was rapid action to train troops and prepare the US for overseas warfare. As the US prepared to enter into multiple war fronts, plans were developed and initiated for home front security. As part of this process, the USCG fell under direction of the US Navy. The Museum’s collections provide a glimpse into some of these rapidly developing events and the role the Lighthouse and Light Station played during the wartime effort. We are fortunate enough to have some of the original Keepers’ records here at the Museum.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, military actions were intensified. Lighthouses along our coastline were immediately designated coastal lookouts serving to monitor boat traffic and identify any German U-boats in a region that would pose as an immediate threat. The US military forces, including the USCG, initiated routine patrol to guard our shorelines, albeit with limited resources. Coastal defense needed additional support and the USCG developed a series of infrastructure series of lookout towers strategically placed along the coastline. Additionally, a beach patrol was established on the coast with a combination of coastguardsmen: on foot with patrol dogs, on horseback and in some areas, in Jeeps. Training centers were established for this new defense effort and local infrastructure further grew to protect our coastlines from saboteurs and to help identify foreign invaders.

At our Lighthouse, the strategy was to construct a coastal lookout dwelling; it was finished and occupied in 1942. The dwelling (aka the Barracks) was built to house at least four coastguardsmen. Their job was to be on duty at the top of the tower 24/7, and report boat traffic (among other things) as part of the coastal defensive system. Unfortunately, there is limited documentation regarding this structure, but some information has been gleaned from past renovation projects as well as some of our original Keepers’ records. A Barracks reroofing project years ago produced a couple of fascinating finds. Among the layers of the former roofing projects, interesting details emerged surrounding construction activity at the Light Station. Original roof material was still present beneath a replacement metal roof. When this metal was removed, examples of original shingles were found! On the reverse side of these shingles was the name and location of the local manufacturer (nearby Palatka).

Shingles with manufacturer’s stamp.

The other amazing find was a section of roofing liner below the wood shingles with a portion of it signed by the individuals believed to have laid the roofing material, as well as the person who completed the electrical work. The fragments of paper are amazingly preserved and one can still clearly read the date of “April 28th 1942” for when the work was completed, and that the laborers were from Daytona Beach (possibly an indication of how busy it was in St. Augustine).

Fragment of paper showing the name and location of the laborers.

By the beginning of May, keeper correspondence suggests the structure is ready for occupation with mentions that the furniture has arrived (including a studio couch, for those who are curious). As staff has conducted searches in correspondence, we have previously been able to note some timeline issues or like most construction projects, a “delay” or “problem” during construction. For example, the coastal dwelling Keeper correspondence from August 1942 indicates the structure and wiring are complete, but additional work is required in order to connect to the main power line. We have also discovered that our first coastguardsmen reporting for lookout duty arrived in July 1942.

Letter from C.D. Daniels confirming arrival and subsequent assignment of coastguardsmen.

A copy of Keeper Daniels’ official report to superiors notes their arrival, and that yet again the dwelling is not quite ready for occupation. When we examine the roster of who arrives, one name is familiar to us: H.D. Defee. He is of interest to us because Defee’s name was previously found etched in concrete by the garage of the same time period. Interestingly, we know the concrete work was completed in 1944 so apparently he had at least a couple stints at the Lighthouse during the war. Restoration projects often reveal history that would not ever be found in any record. This is the case here at the Lighthouse. We suspect that as the restoration project continues, we are sure to find additional surprises!

Contributed by Chief Curator Jason Titcomb, edited by Student Intern Jayda Barnes

Conservation Around Site – Harpoon

People have hunted whales around the world for thousands of years, primarily for meat and blubber. In America, the practice really took off in the colonial 18th century and hit its peak in the mid-19th. The most lucrative product at this point was whale oil, derived from boiling down blubber or harvesting the head of sperm whales. As the American industry grew and expanded, so did the whaling practices and technology, which is where our conservation topic comes in today.

There is a harpoon that is part of an education collection in the oil house. While the whaling industry was never directly involved with the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, it was still a part of the lighthouse world. The refined whale oil was a highly sought after commodity used for lantern fuel and many lighthouses were lit in such a manner.

Harpoon in whaling display, with scrimshaw and baleen.
Harpoon in whaling display, with scrimshaw and baleen.

In order to get the whale oil, crews had to somehow hunt and harvest them. Early harpoons were made of wood, bone and stone. They were thrown or shot into the whale and attached to a floating object. The idea was to tire the whale out until the hunters could finish it off.  Eventually, as larger whale species were targeted, larger, deadlier and more durable harpoons were created. Our particular artifact is an interesting variation that became a gold-standard for harpoons. The style is referred to as a “standard improved toggle” harpoon. It is credited as being designed by Lewis Temple, a freed slave and blacksmith. He opened a shop in the whaling community of New Bedford around 1845 and his style became incredibly popular, partly because he never patented the design and since it was so effective. This does make it difficult to definitively identify our harpoon, though, as many manufacturers made and sold them.

Standard improved toggle head. http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/TR_072824.html
Standard improved toggle head.
http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/TR_072824.html

The small head is designed to cut and penetrate deep into the whale skin easily. The rear of the head has a sweeping barb that holds the harpoon in place. The ingenuity of Temple’s invention, though, is a pivot in the center of the head. When the harpoon is pulled back, the barb turns outward and rotates the head into a T-shape, locking it in. Another clever bit of engineering is the long, skinny shaft. The cast iron used in the harpoon is strong, but flexible, so that it can twist and bend after insertion and during the pursuit.

Bent toggle harpoon. http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/AG_056237.html
Bent toggle harpoon.
http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/collection/AG_056237.html

The conservation for the harpoon was very easy and unobtrusive since the artifact does not actually belong to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. I did not want to add any chemicals or sealants that would be difficult for a future curator or conservator to remove, should the need arise.

Overall the condition of the metal was pretty good. There were a few spots here and there on the bare cast iron that showed signs of corrosion. These were exclusively on the head and base of the shaft. The paint on the shaft of the harpoon, however, looked good and did not need any treatment.

I started by carefully brushing off the rust and corrosion product from the iron using a toothbrush. For the more stubborn spots I used a small wire wheel and bit of steel mesh. When the metal was clean, I then covered the exposed parts with a light coat of air tool oil to penetrate and prevent additional oxidation. The oil has few additives that would strip the iron or gum up the surface while it dried. After the oil, I then sealed both ends of the harpoon using heated microcrystalline wax. The molten wax is able to seep into all the pores of the metal and seal the surfaces from exposure to the atmosphere.

Oil house harpoon with toggle pivoted.
Oil house harpoon with toggle pivoted.

Clothing Mysteries

The vast majority of artifacts that come through conservation are from our shipwrecks excavated by LAMP. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of objects from the Storm and Anniversary wrecks waiting to be worked on. However, conservation activities for the LAMP sites have slowed down as we pack up and organize for the new building construction. There was also a little event called Hurricane Matthew that stifled conservation duties.

We boarded up the Light Station for Hurricane Matthew. Fortunately, we suffered minimal damage and were able to re-open the Monday after the storm.
We boarded up the Light Station for Hurricane Matthew. Fortunately, we suffered minimal damage and were able to re-open the Monday after the storm.

Fortunately, there was no significant damage to the lighthouse, the museum or any of the offices. Once everyone was back safely and cleaned up the grounds, work could get back to some semblance of normal.

So, knowing that we would not want to begin any new long-term conservation projects or open up new concretions because of the impending construction; coupled with most everything being packed up for the storm, I started a fun, fast project.

Besides the shipwreck artifacts, we have a number of objects in our collections department. A lot of these pieces have been donated by various people over the years. Some, though, come directly from our grounds. Continue reading

Sifting through the muck

Every year, our research arm, the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), heads out on the water to either survey for new wrecks, target test potential anomalies from said surveys or locate and excavate archaeological sites underwater.

How exactly does LAMP work underwater and get the artifacts for the conservation team?

Unlike a “traditional” land site, we cannot simply dig up the dirt and move it to the side with shovels and wheelbarrows. We instead do a similar process, but with an all-in-one dredge setup suited for diving. By using gas-powered pumps to shoot water down a dredge head attached to a large diameter hose, it creates a vacuum in the hose. The hose then sucks up any of the sand in the grids and empties out a few meters away.

While dredging underwater, the divers try to carefully clean down to the concretions and avoid sucking up any artifacts. On the offhand chance that something is either too small to see or visibility conditions are too bad, we make sure to collect all the sediment in bags at the other end of the hose.

Dredging underwater.
Dredging underwater.

All the material that is taken up the hose is called dredge spoil. Most of the spoil is small particulates of sand or clay and is filtered out of the mesh bags.

However, after long sessions of dredging a large amount of shell hash builds up. We try to replace the bags every time a new grid is excavated or once the bag is too full. When that happens we have to bring the bags up to the boat using crates and lift bags.

The lift bags are simply bags that are filled with air and help slowly raise the dredge spoil up to the surface. Once we haul everything on board, the next step is to pour the spoil into buckets, make sure they are documented and transport them back to the lighthouse.

Dredge spoil tagged and ready.
Dredge spoil tagged and ready.

One thing we make sure to do is keep the buckets of spoil filled with water. Even though we bring them back at the end of every excavation day, we are not able to sort through them right away. Often times we will not get to the dredge spoil for quite some time, as field school and other conservation tasks take precedence. Continue reading