GREENVILLE — State archeology conservator Terry Williams used an air powered chisel Wednesday to carefully clean a bar shot retrieved from the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck in Beaufort Inlet.
The bar shot, a double cannon ball connected by a bar, is one of thousands of artifacts being cleaned and conserved at the QAR conservation lab at East Carolina University.
While the glitz and glamour associated with the shipwreck centers around raising cannons and large artifacts from the ocean floor, a small team of conservators works behind the scenes in the Greenville lab painstakingly preparing the hundreds of thousands of artifacts for display.
Some of their work was showcased during a media day at the lab Wednesday.
The two most recent lab additions are two large cannons retrieved from the wreck site in June. They now join seven other cannons, which can weigh up to 2,500 pounds, at the lab. Cannons are in various stages of conservation.
Sarah Watkins-Kenney, QAR lab director and chief conservator, said 27 cannons have been found at the shipwreck since its discovery in November 1996.
Of those, 15 have been brought up from the site, with six of those now on display at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort or other state museums. The other nine sit in 9-foot tanks full of water mixed with sodium carbonate, used to remove salt from the metal artifacts.
The process can take more than five years to complete. If the salt is not removed, the metallic artifacts will corrode, according to Ms. Watkins-Kenney. Anodes are connected to cannons in the tanks to use electrolysis to remove the salts.
Many of the cannons brought to the lab had plugs in the end of the barrels and were loaded with gunpowder. Fortunately, the gunpowder is normally outdated and not active, she said.
“Of the six cannons we’ve completed treating, four were loaded with cannon shot and wadding (rope wadding),” she said. “Of the gunpowder we’ve tested it’s not been active. But we still keep the whole thing wet while we’re cleaning as a precaution.”
An indicator of whether a cannon is loaded is when the end is plugged with a small piece of wood, known as a tampion. That was inserted in the barrel to keep the cannonball and other ammunition from falling out.
While cannons are the most well known artifacts, there are thousands of others that have undergone or are undergoing conservation that are just as important. Each one sheds light on life in the 1700s and what conditions were like aboard 18th century sailing vessels.
They are also important clues to the identity of the shipwreck, which had been a French slave ship prior to being captured by Blackbeard and renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Ms. Watkins-Kenney said so far three iron shackles wrapped with rope have been found at the site. While shackles could have been used for prisoners or animals, when rope is wrapped around them that is an indication they were used on slaves, she added.
There are unique medical instruments, including a large pewter cylinder that Ms. Watkins-Kenny said was used as an enema applicator.
Other artifacts that have recently finished conservation and will soon be on display at the N.C. Maritime Museum include pewter plates, a pewter spoon, a sword hilt, animal bones, navigational instruments, ceramics and bottle pieces, including one with the cork still inserted.
For the tiniest of artifacts, including brass pins, glass beads used to trade for slaves, and specks of gold dust, conservators painstakingly sift through sand and shell dredged from the site.
What seems like a pile of meaningless shells and sand to most people can actually be a treasure trove of artifacts to a skilled conservator.
Conservator Kim Kenyon was busy Wednesday sifting through sand and shells, finding tiny pieces of lead shot used as ammunition. She also finds a good bit of gold dust, which are tiny golden specks.
Ms. Watkins-Kenney said they’ve found about 14,000 specks of gold so far, which weighs a total of about 20 grams.
“You might make one earring out of it,” she said.
Most of the artifacts brought to the lab are covered in concretion, which are layers of sediment, shell and sand that attach to metal artifacts. Concretion can contain thousands of artifacts, so conservators are careful when removing it.
Many times chisels, including the air chisel used by Ms. Williams, are used to remove the sediment. To ensure hidden artifacts aren’t damaged, conservators X-ray the thick layers to get an idea what the concretion may contain.
It’s time consuming work, and with limited space in the two buildings that conservators use, the more artifacts that are retrieved the more cramped the quarters.
It’s become so crowded that many of the smaller artifacts are now stored in a large storage bin outside of the lab buildings.
With the State Department of Cultural Resources hoping to get the thousands of artifacts still remaining on the ocean floor up by the end of 2014, Ms. Watkins-Kenney said space is becoming critical.
It’s especially a challenge for the larger objects, such as cannons and anchors.
Plus, because of a limited budget staffing is difficult. She currently has three permanent staff, a lab manager, two contract staff and two graduate assistants.
Ideally, she said she needs 10 to 12 trained conservators, plus assistants to handle the overwhelming amount of artifacts coming into the lab.
While the state pays some of the positions, most money for the project now comes from corporate and private grants and donations.
State underwater archaeologists will return Aug. 5 and work at the shipwreck site through the end of October, retrieving even more artifacts.
Since exploration of the shipwreck began in 1997, about 280,000 artifacts have been recovered, including cannons, anchors, ship’s bell, grenades and platters. Many of those items are on display at the N.C. Maritime Museum, and others are part of traveling exhibits around the state.
The QAR wreck was located in November 1996 by Intersal Inc., with information provided to Operations Director Mike Daniel by company president Phil Masters. Archaeologists with the Underwater Archaeology Branch in the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources lead the research on this shipwreck.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.