Four pieces of Clotilda, the last known ship to carry enslaved Africans to the U.S., have been pulled out of the Mobile River and will undergo a possibly lengthy preservation process, a team of archeologists told members of the Africatown community on Thursday evening at the culmination of a 10-day project.
The project that included archeologists, members of the Army Corps of Engineers and leadership with the Alabama Historical Commission was meant to take a closer look at the ship to see its preservation status and what could be done in the future, State Archeologist Stayce Hathorn said.
Jim Delgado, senior vice president of SEARCH, Inc., told community members and reporters during the 10-day project at the shipwreck site, researchers found interesting discoveries, including 94 separate pieces of Clotilda that had previously come loose from the ship. None of the artifacts found were taken from the ship, he said.
“A major focus was to gain access to relieve stress on the ship,” Delgado said. “There were trees and timbers lodged against it. They were lifted and removed.”
Among the artifacts painstakingly cataloged by team members on a barge near the wreckage was a port quarter clap, which held up and supported deck beams.
“There are impressions of the deck beams on the wood,” Delgado said. “There is no evidence of burning on the piece, which likely means the stern sank before the ship was burned.”
Every piece taken from the site to the barge was cataloged quickly and put into a tub of river water to help preserve it, he said. All but four of the 94 pieces were returned to the wreckage site. Among those four pieces is a part of what Delgado believes is the steering apparatus of the ship. Another artifact that researchers kept was a piece of a plank of the ship. Delgado said the piece shows a steamsaw mark, which indicates it was produced by an enslaved laborer.
A section of the hull was also kept, he said, as well as an apparatus that held the anchor rope of the ship.
“Every one of these pieces help to tell the story,” he said.
The plan is to preserve these four pieces so that each can be displayed at a later time. As conservator Claudia Chemello pointed out, just how much time is needed in order to fully protect those artifacts is unknown.
“There are ways to do this, but it can take years and years,” she said. “It takes a long time.”
Chemello, who founded Terra Mara Conservation, along with Paul Mardikian, said with shipwrecks like Clotilda there are two concerns. One concern is about the materials used and the other is about the environment to which those materials were subjected.
In the case of Clotilda, specifically, Chemello said the pieces are water-logged and corroded because they’ve been wet for a long time. While the water by itself has not been kind to the artifacts in question, the water in the Mobile River is brackish, which means the level of salt in it can vary depending upon conditions. This can also help the items deteriorate over time.
In addition, the pieces are made up of several different materials, including wood, pieces of rope and very fragile, old cast iron.
“We have to try to put our heads around it now and figure out the best way to conserve it,” she said.
As for pulling the whole ship out from the river, Delgado said it could be tough, but isn’t totally out of the question. It is a process that could take years, he said, while giving an example of the work needed to preserve the Royal Swedish ship Vasa.
That ship was raised and put on display, Delgado said, but the preservation has continued on it for more than 50 years.
“There has been five decades of conservation and it’s still not done,” he said.
In addition to the work, Delgado said the restoration has been costly. At one point, the preservation cost Sweden up to a quarter of its national defense budget, he said.
“Everyone needs to be aware of how much it costs,” Delgado said. “You want to make sure you have the full payment there before you raise it.”
Delgado said researchers discovered that the wreck is in at least two pieces from bow to stern and among the artifacts found at the site is a pair of shoes he believes could’ve been worn by Capt. William Foster, although he admitted further testing would be necessary. Delgado only confirmed that the shoes looked similar to the styles of pairs he recovered from shipwrecks in the 1830s and 1860s.
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here