Saturday, July 23, 2011

Recovering History

One of the primary distinctions (or battles) between archeologist and salvors (treasure hunters) is the disposition, or resting place, of artifacts recovered from historic sites. Granted, as an underwater photographer my opinion may not count in this community, however spending the past 15 years traveling, diving and shooting for them I have a decent “outsiders” perspective. Perhaps the most contentious issue is the recovery of artifacts and if those artifacts are held in public trust for the benefit of education, historical context, and further investigation – OR- are sold to the highest bidder in some effort to pay off investors, stock holders or overall pirates.

I mention this topic in the context of the HMS Investigator expedition as example of how to recover history properly - and ethically.  Throughout the project the Parks Canada underwater  archeologist have not only mapped the ship, but studied its every timber, deck beam, and diagnostic feature possible without excavation. They have identified several artifacts resting on the decks and exposed in the sediment. Each one was painstakingly drawn and mapped (with thick, three finger gloves I might add) while being recorded in place. Candidates for recovery were discussed amongst the team as to the significance of both this site and the context of polar exploration of the mid 1800's as a whole. Artifacts were selected based on site preservation and integrity (the possibility of artifact removal by others), contribution to the historical record of the period, and uniqueness to the ship itself. Once the artifacts were selected, a very detailed plan was put in place not only to lift them from the icy sea, but to transport via helicopter, bush plane and commercial airlines was also considered. In addition the conservation commitment, cost and facilities to properly preserve these pieces in perpetuity was also assessed. Lastly, and I believe most importantly, how can they be used to tell the Investigators story to the public and where?

With all these considerations responsibly addressed by the team, a few select pieces were recovered to be conserved and displayed in a maritime museum. Among the recovered artifacts were boots, copper sheeting with the British broad arrow stamp, felt lining used in the double hull of the polar expedition vessel, and several diagnostic features of period ship construction such as rigging blocks and bits. Perhaps the most impressive recovery was a musket riffle located partially buried in the sediment, lodged between deck debris. Not only was this riffle well preserved carrying both a British War Department serial number and date of manufacture (1848) but it has a story to tell. Its presence rewrites the historical record since it was documented that all armaments were removed upon abandonment of the ship. It also has the potential to be tracked via the serial number to an individual listed in the ships manifest it was issued to. Lastly, it plays a direct connection to the amazing story of survival that the Investigators were subjected to and no doubt was used to sustain the crew in the three years they spent trapped in the ice.

Once on display, this riffle and all the artifacts have stories that would be lost with out the recovery and conservation of these archeologist. Perhaps most importantly, their stories will be told to the public through interpretation and education giving us a rare window polar exploration of the mid nineteenth century. Very exciting.

No comments:

Post a Comment