SAVANNAH, GA - For the average Sailor, a day on a rigid-hull inflatable boat consists of a ride with shipmates, skipping across the water of one of the world's oceans. The shore remains far from sight, with nothing but the open water and the destination in view. This is not the scene playing out in the Savannah River this summer, however; the RHIB is filled with Navy divers, explosive ordnance disposal technicians, and veterans of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' underwater archeological and conservation team. This is just an average morning on the way to the dive site of the CSS Georgia salvage in Savannah.
Service members use the term “subject matter expert” on a nearly daily basis. They depend on these fountains of information and go-to sources to always fall back on. For the Sailors heading out to Georgia, these key members of the USACE team are the all-important SME.
July 13, 2015 - Navy Diver 1st Class Spencer Puett, a native of St Joseph, Mo., prepares fellow Sailors to dive the waters of the Savannah River in support of the salvage of Civil War ironclad CSS Georgia. Navy Divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2 and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 6 are working in conjunction with archaeologists, conservationists, Naval History and Heritage Command, and the US Army Corps of Engineers in a project directed by Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) to salvage and preserve CSS Georgia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse A. Hyatt)
“The archaeological team have been such a valuable source of information,” said Navy Diver 1st Class Spencer Puett, from St. Joseph, Missouri. “Without these experts, we would not of been able to come into the dive so prepared. We had the knowledge about environment to be ready and accomplish the job in a safe manner.”
The archaeologists have been in Savannah learning the river, the currents and tides, the riverbed, and preparing for the future. The 2015 salvage has been years in the making, but began in earnest early this spring with site surveys. These surveys allowed plans to be laid out for safe and efficient mission execution.
“Savannah District held a planning meeting in July 2013 with Naval Sea Systems Command, United States Marine Corps and other key parties to discuss how to recover the CSS Georgia,” said Julie Morgan, archaeologist with USACE Savannah. “The archaeological phase of the CSS Georgia Archaeological Data Recovery Project initiated in Jan. 2015 and ended the first week of June 2015. During that time, Panamerican Consultants Inc. archaeologists thoroughly mapped the site, identified ordnance locations, and recovered approximately 1500 small artifacts from the site.”
Using GPS, sonar, diving and a variety of beacons, the team was able to start charting out what the river bottom looks like, and where the priceless artifacts were located.
“With the information already gathered we have been able to really get a good workflow,” said Puett. “We are set up for success, and know where our next move is due to the knowledge the archeological team brought to the table.”
This is not the first time someone visited Georgia looking for her secrets. “Discovery” of the Georgia happened in the late
'60s - though its location has long been known - and efforts to unearth its mysteries have continued off and on until today, but this will be the final time she will be explored. Georgia must be removed completely to make way for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP, a beneficial and commerce-boosting project to allow larger ships to use the Port of Savannah.
"When we deepen the channel to 47 feet, we have to dredge through there," said Jason Okane, USACE project manager. "So we have to get Georgia out of the way before we can do that."
After all of this prep work, the USACE archaeological team continues to play a vital role in the day-to-day dive work. While Navy divers are in the water, the archaeological team is on the barge feeding information, tracking the divers and pinpointing the artifacts. They also function as a living encyclopedia on the history and data of what lies below.
As the artifacts come out of the river, the team's conservators take over, preparing the items for the journey to Texas A&M University, where the real conservation work will take place.
"We're providing trained conservators to assess and record the artifacts as they're recovered," said Jim Jobling, director of A&M's Conservation Research Laboratory. "We're recording each artifact so we know the exact position of everything."
Once all the pieces make it to Texas A&M University, conservators will begin to remove the nearly 150 years of buildup from the river. A variety of techniques will be deployed to remove shells, silt and salt that cover the items.
One of the common items the conservators will work on is a sabot: A piece of metal placed behind a cannon to create a seal and begin the rifling movement of the projectile. Jobling explains the process he will go through to bring it back to nearly original condition.
“We use an air scribe to mechanically clean all of the artifact,” Jobling said. “I then put it into a tank of sodium hydroxide, which is an electrolyte, and then I connect it up to a power supply. I then run a slow DC current through it to remove the salt that absorbed into the brass.”
After the salt is removed, the surface will be scrubbed, polished and boiled to remove any residual chemical build up. As a final way to seal and preserve the item it will be dipped into wax, Jobling added.
From this point the items will be under the purview of the Naval History and Heritage Command. The items belong to the Navy because under maritime law, the CSS Georgia is considered a captured enemy vessel and is therefore the property of the Navy. NHHC will find locations for the artifacts, so the public can enjoy and learn from the different parts of Georgia for years to come.
Navy divers are in the water every day, throughout the world, performing a diverse array of mission sets. With 2015 serving as The Year of the Military Diver, the CSS Georgia is a perfect illustration of their capabilities as they dive into history.
U.S. Navy EOD is the world's premier combat force for countering explosive hazards and conducting expeditionary diving and salvage.
By U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse A. Hyatt
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