message Board EDUCATION RESOURCES SUNKEN CITIES RECENT DISCOVERIES SHIP WRECKS MAIN PAGE INTRODUCTION GLOSSARY TIMELINE LINKS CONSERVATION METHODS LOCATING THE WRECK EXCAVATION TECHNIQUES SHIPWRECK DATA BASE About This Site
June, 1999, Questions by Arem Thor (George) Merriweather
Interview with Christopher F. Amer, Deputy State Archaeologist for Underwater South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology
Q: When did you realize you wanted to become a nautical archaeologist?
Christopher F. Amer: According to my parents, I was interested in archaeology from a very early age. I began studying archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia during the early 1970s and was involved in excavations of land sites in the area. After I took SCUBA lessons in 1976 I began to realize that much history, and prehistory, resided beneath the oceans. I was interested in the peopling of the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge and realized that one possible route, the coastal route, would now be beneath a considerable depth of water. This led me to seek formal schooling in underwater archaeology. In the late 1970s the only graduate program in nautical archaeology was Dr. George Bass's program at Texas A & M University, so I enrolled. It was while studying in the Program that my interest turned to submerged historic sites and post-medieval small craft construction. Seven years of working with Parks Canada on the 16th century Basque whaling site at Red Bay, Labrador, piqued my interest in the dynamics of European cultures visiting and colonizing the New World during the Proto-historic period. The work I conducted on a converted British gunboat from the War of 1812 for my Master's thesis reinforced my desire to explore small watercraft construction. That desire that has been fulfilled in the prehistoric and historic culture-rich environment of the waterways of South Carolina, where I have worked as the state's underwater archaeologist since 1987.
Q: What are your favorite books with a maritime theme?
Christopher F. Amer: I enjoy reading, and rereading the novels by C. S. Forester, Dudley Pope and others who write historical novels about life at sea. I especially like to browse through large volumes like Jean Boudriot's, 74-Gun Ship, series, Lavery's, The Ship of the Line, and books about shipbuilding in the age of sail.
Q: Did you have a mentor?
Christopher F. Amer: My mentor is unquestionably J. Richard "" Steffy, from whom I learned shipwreck interpretation and reconstruction, during by stay in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A & M University.
Q: Why did you become involved in the Hunley excavation?
Christopher F. Amer: The Hunley was found during a joint survey between the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and the National Underwater Marine Agency (funded by Clive Cussler). As the Deputy State Archaeologist for Underwater it fell to me to manage the site until its disposition could be determined. When an assessment project was planned in 1996 to scientifically confirm the identity of the site and make recommendations as to the boat's future I became co-principal investigator of the project along with Dan Lenihan from the National Park Service's Submerged Cultural Resource Unit. The Hunley is as far removed from my interest in small, wooden, watercraft as one can get, but it's innovative design and dramatic story has really hooked me.
Q: What is the condition of the Hunley?
Christopher F. Amer: The Hunley lies beneath the sediments in 30 feet of water. Additionally, the hull is full of sand, which probably entered through a 5-inch hole in the forward hatch coming. The rapid sedimentation of the interior of the boat suggest that artifacts within the hull may be well preserved. This is further suggested by the recovery this summer of artifacts from the Housatonic that are in a remarkably good state of preservation. The exterior of the Hunley's hull is covered with a thick layer of concretion which has protected the iron and slowed the deterioration process. All in all, it looks like the boat is in good shape for recovery, conservation, and exhibition.
Q: Has the location of the Hunley wreck help or hindered its preserved state?
Christopher F. Amer: The location of the wreck has helped the preservation of the boat and its contents. The boat was swiftly buried, probably within nine month of sinking. The interior of the hull was probably also filled with sediment by that time. Salt water and fine-grained sediments are conducive to preservation of a range of materials, including hard tissues like bone, leather, rubber, and fabrics. It is therefore quite likely, given the anaerobic conditions within the hull, that many of these materials will be preserved. The thick layer of concretion on the hull has slowed the galvanic processes across the different metal components of the hull. Because of this, we believe that there is a significant amount of iron left on the hull. Lastly, the Hunley lies completely covered by the seafloor sediments in a very tempestuous area of sea off the Charleston jetties, hard to find and harder to excavate. Over the years many persons have searched for the boat without result, until 1995. Most researchers suspected that the boat would be inshore of the Housatonic as it headed toward the harbor after the attack. Few conceived that the submarine may have actually been swept offshore, which is exactly what happened.
Q: Have you found any items that you did not think would turn up in the area that you are excavating?
Christopher F. Amer: The Hunley itself is the artifact. As the hull is intact, all artifacts associated with the boat will be inside the hull. We were surprised that the 20-foot-long iron spar appears to not be with the hull. This summer, working on the Housatonic, we were pleasantly surprised by the remarkable state of preservation of the artifacts, which included shoes, shell fuses, an officer's sword hanger, a pistol, and copper hull sheathing.
Q: What has been the hardest part of an excavation?
Christopher F. Amer: Working in that environment has been the most difficult task to
date. The visibility is exceedingly low, BLACK much of the time with occasional glimpses of the bottom. The photographs of the Hunley, which Guenter Weber and I shot, were taken on two periods of exceptional visibility. Some of these are on our web site (http://www.cla.sc.edu/sciaa/hunley1.html). Other factors that make the site difficult to work include rough seas almost all the time, high velocity, sometimes erratic currents, and flocks of stinging jellyfish.
Q: How long do you estimate it will take you and your team to complete the Hunley excavation?
Christopher F. Amer: The 1996 assessment of the Hunley uncovered approximately one-third of the hull. After the hull was drawn and tests complete, the hull was
completely reburied. Complete excavation of the boat will occur only when everything is ready to raise the hull. We anticipate that excavating and raising the boat will take several weeks or longer. The main point is that the Hunley is a one-of-a-kind. There will be no second chance. So, everything must be done correctly and flawlessly the first time. Hence, the lengthy preparation time, until the Hunley is raised in the Spring of 2001.
Q: Can you list some of the chief dangers that might be encountered during the excavation process?
Christopher F. Amer: The biggest danger to excavating and raising the boat comes from the environmental conditions outlined above. All equipment used in the recovery operation, from the support ships to the device used to actually support the hull, will need to be able to withstand the adverse conditions of the exposed site.
Q: Who owns the Hunley and where will it eventually end up?
Christopher F. Amer: The 1996 Programmatic Agreement between the Federal Government and the State of South Carolina states that the Federal Government will own the Hunley, while South Carolina will be the custodian of the boat in perpetuity.
Hunley History The Battle Original H.L. Hunley Blueprints Hunley Investigation