SAVANNAH, Ga. – Six days a week, Loren Clark comes home covered in mud, soaked in seawater and physically exhausted from 12 hours of hard labor.
But that’s the life of a post-grad.
During the mechanized recovery of the CSS Georgia, more than 20 archaeologists like Clark are finding common ground with the burly salvage workers and crane operators with which they share “an office” – two, 250-foot barges that sit above the wreck site.
“We don’t normally do archaeology this way and they don’t normally do salvage this way, so it’s kind of a new hybrid,” Clark said.
The mechanized recovery is one of the final phases of the project that will remove the ironclad before deepening the Savannah harbor.
Stephen James, principal investigator, Panamerican Consultants, Inc., said this phase was akin to mowing the lawn, where a crane methodically scours the site for artifacts that were either too heavy or buried during previous phases of the recovery.
Workers use a five-finger grapple and clamshell scoop to raise material from the river bottom and deposit it onto the barge. There, teams of archaeologists sift through the muddy mess using rakes, shovels and fire hoses, spraying the excess through grates on the side of the barge.
Distinguishing between worthless rocks and cultural artifacts covered in the same material is no easy task.
“You get an eye for seeing things – usually it’s the texture,” said Will Wilson, a maritime archaeologist who has been working on the project since January. “For every 20 pieces of concretion you find one artifact. It’s tough, but that’s the kind of stuff we look for.”
Rick Ramos, a terrestrial archaeologist, expressed the excitement he and many of his colleagues feel as each load reaches the barge.
“It’s like Christmas,” he said.
Wilson put all the excitement into perspective.
“(On a routine terrestrial survey) maybe you’ll find something, but probably not,” he said. “We’d be really excited to find a stain in the sediment.”
The team averages 40-50 “grabs” per day. Wilson said any single artifact, which they uncover in just about every grab, would be a find of the month for most surveys.
“We’ve gotten very spoiled,” he said.
In addition to several sections of casemate and an unexpected 9,000-pound Dahlgren cannon, archaeologists have recovered a sword hilt, gold-guilded buttons from uniforms, intact bottles and ceramics, and personal items like shoes and a belt buckle.
Archaeologists expect to complete the mechanized recovery phase by the first week in November, and will continue conservation efforts at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory.
That means a few more weeks of long days and enduring the constant clanging of machinery and scraping shovels, but they don’t seem to mind.
“If you’re doing good archaeology, you’re going to break a sweat and get dirty,” Wilson said.