Putting the pieces together: Civil War exhibit helps marine archaeologist identify shipwreck artifacts

USS WestfieldTo prepare for an assault on the Confederacy by water, privately owned boats were purchased and converted into war vessels by the Union Navy. Among these were almost two dozen ferryboats that were converted into gunboats.

A particular Staten Island ferryboat named Westfield, originally owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, ended up down the road in Galveston Bay — for nearly 150 years. She wrecked at the conclusion of the 1863 Battle of Galveston, one of the most unusual battles of the Civil War.

After her purchase by the U.S. Navy in 1861, Westfield was armored and converted into a gunboat. Westfield saw significant Civil War action, participating in battles at New Orleans, Vicksburg and other places along the Gulf Coast. Her destruction at the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863, was one of the most important and dramatic events of the Civil War in Texas. The Confederate victory won back the port from Union forces. The port stayed in Confederate hands the remainder of the war, and saved Texas from the damaging effects of occupation and battle suffered by other southern states.

In the fall of 2009, a team of marine archeologists, working under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervised the recovery of artifacts from this unique “fighting ferryboat.” It was a massive and challenging project. The team recovered tons of artifacts — including parts of the ship, a 4-ton Dahlgren cannon and personal effects of the crew.

Immediately after the artifacts were recovered from the bottom of the Galveston Bay, the conservation phase of the project began. Upon surfacing, artifacts undergo an immediate stabilization process to prevent further deterioration. This is the beginning of the long course of conservation work ahead. The desalination process, in which artifacts remain submerged in water, can by itself take six months to two years. After that, artifacts are treated with numerous conservation techniques, depending on the item’s material make-up.

Many of the artifacts that have completed the conservation process at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University are on display with the Discovering the Civil War exhibition at HMNS.

In March, several members of the USS Westfield Project were at HMNS for a lecture: Robert Gearhart, Principal Investigator; Amy Borgens, State Marine Archeologist with the Texas Historical Commission; Edward T. Cotham, Jr., project historian and author of Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston. With the group was also Justin Parkoff, who is currently working on conservation of artifacts at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

While at HMNS, Parkoff toured the Civil War exhibition and experienced a eureka moment while viewing the artifacts on display from the Nau Civil War Collection. He spotted a Union belt buckle with a familiar shape.

Parkoff had been working on conserving two seemingly unrelated artifacts from the Westfield wreck site, but no one had been able to identify what they were — until now.
“This is exciting because we have so few personal artifacts from Westfield,” Parkoff explained.

Below are the two recovered artifacts.

westfield-artifacts

Below is a photo of a replica buckle, identical to the one on display at HMNS from the Nau Collection.

replica-buckle

Want to learn more about excavating and conserving shipwrecks?

Join HMNS for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory on June 16. After learning how researchers locate shipwrecks and recover items from the wreck site, tour the labs to see the different stages of artifact conservation. Starting with indistinguishable concretions, from small specimens to large sections of a ship, you will see how items are transformed in lab treatments.

Our guides are Dr. Donny Hamilton, director of the Conservation Research Laboratory, and Justin Parkoff, graduate student from the Texas A&M University Nautical Archaeology Program. Considered the leading research institution in the world for shipwreck archaeology, teams from Texas A&M have located, recovered and conserved shipwrecks from around the world.

Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Tickets availability is limited. Advance ticket purchase is required.

Don’t miss the chance to see Discovering the Civil War before it leaves Houston. The last day on view is April 29.

Tasty Treats: snacks to revive the weary fossil-hunter

Our guest blogger today is Gretchen, a volunteer at the HMNS who traveled with the Paleo team to Seymour in June. In addition to helping the team excavate in the 120 degree heat, Gretchen acted as head chef, feeding the hot, tired, and dirty diggers at the end of each day. In today’s blog, Gretchen shares with us her best recipes to keep up your energy in the field.

As the chief chef, bottle washer and Dimentrodon digger in Seymour for the week of June 2-7, I was asked to share some of my field recipes with you all!

When you are out digging in the Permian red beds it is important to keep your energy levels high. The best way to do so is to eat home-made cookies! Now, to make sure it will stand up to field conditions, you have to find a cookie recipe that is:

  1. Easy
  2. Not too “crumbly”
  3. Very tasty — even after it has sat in 100-degree temperatures in a zip-lock bag in the back of our truck for days!

The hands-down winner and first runner-up are:

Easy Peanut Butter Cookies

1 (14 ounce) can of sweetened condensed milk

¾ cup peanut butter

2 cups of biscuit mix

1-teaspoon of vanilla extract

1 bag of either (choose one) chocolate chips or chocolate chip/peanut butter swirls.

a plate of cookies
Creative Commons License photo credit: djloche

Combine the sweetened condensed milk and peanut butter in a bowl. Beat with an electric mixer at medium speed until blended. Add biscuit mix and vanilla extract and mix well. Put small amounts of the mix on a cookiesheet (1 teaspoon of mix should do the trick.) Flatten with a fork (If you are up to it you can make a pretty crisscross pattern with the fork! But nobody notices this extra effort in the field so it’s up to you!)

Bake at 375 for 6 to 7 minutes or until slightly golden in color.

Cool on a wire rack.

These cookies are yummy and virtually indestructible!

The runner up favorite was:

Newport Desserts 4lb. Lemon-Fruit Cream Bars1
Creative Commons License photo credit: monstershaq2000

Lemon Crispies

¾ cup of shortening

1-cup of sugar

3 large eggs

2 cups of all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon of baking soda

1/8 teaspoon of salt

2 (3.4-ounce) packages of lemon instant pudding mix.

Beat Shortening at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating well. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Combine flour and the remaining 3 ingredients; gradually add to shortening mixture, beating well. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto lightly greased baking sheets. Bake at 375 farenheit for 8 to 9 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Cool one minute on baking sheets; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

I also made traditional “Toll House Cookies” that are a crowd favorite. Just buy a bag of chocolate chips and follow the recipe on the back!

For dinner (with leftovers for lunch the following day) I like to make soup. You can get the soup prepared; put it in a crock pot on low when you leave for the day in the field — and when you get back to the Ranch the soup is hot and ready to go!

I was lucky on this trip that on my way to Seymour I stopped by a roadside farmer’s stand just outside of Dublin, Texas. (For you trivia buffs, the question is: “What is Dublin, Texas world-famous for?” The answer will be at the end of the blog.) At the stand I was able to purchase sweet potatoes (or yams, I can never tell), red potatoes, yellow squash, sweet onions, peaches and fresh eggs. I incorporated these fresh ingredients in my cooking all week long. It’s cool when you can see the garden that your produce came from and the trees that the peaches were pulled off of and the chickens whose eggs you are enjoying. You know that everything is farm-fresh. A real treat for us Houston City Dwellers!

The hands-down favorite soup of the week was:

Monterey Chicken Soup

3 Tablespoons of Olive Oil

1 & ½ medium onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, minced (I used 4, garlic is good for you!)

3 (4-ounce) cans of green chilies, diced. (Look for “Hatch Green Chilies” — they are the best and the hot ones are HOT!)

2 yellow squash cubed *

3 red potatoes cubed *

3 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons ground comino

3 teaspoons oregano

12 cups of chicken broth

3 (14&1/2-ounce) cans of tomatoes, diced with juice

4 cups of chicken cubed (I used about 8 thighs cut up.) You can use pre-cooked chicken.

4 cups of frozen corn, thawed (If I had found good-looking corn-on-the-cob I would have scraped the corn from the cobs and used that. Unfortunately, my roadside stand did not have corn – to early in the season.)

2/3 cups of cilantro

Salt and pepper to add some taste

*Not in the original recipe, but with my roadside stand I found that they added great taste to an already great soup!

Heat oil, onion and garlic until transparent. Add chilies and spices and cook for one minute. Add broth and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add chicken, corn, extra vegetables, and cilantro. Cook 30 minutes or until potatoes and/or chicken is done. Season with salt and pepper for taste.

I served a wonderful Corn Casserole with the soup; which was great the next day for breakfast too!

½ cup of butter, melted

1-cup of sour cream

1 egg

1 can (16-ounce) of whole kernel corn, drained

1 can (16-ounce) of cream style corn, UNdrained

1 (9-ounce) package of corn muffin mix

1 cup of grated cheddar cheese

In a large bowl, mix together butter, sour cream and egg.

Stir in cans of corn and corn muffin mix.

Spoon into a 9-inch square pan (or 2 quart casserole dish)

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove from oven and top with cheese.

Return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Let stand for 5 minutes and serve warm.

Although I really enjoyed cooking for the crew, nothing beats sitting in the hot West Texas sun, digging and brushing carefully through the Permian soil looking for the bones of reptiles and other animals long extinct! We found some pretty cool bones on this trip; including a huge claw and some very tiny bones of an unknown animal!

P.S. Dublin, Texas is the home of Doctor Pepper! You can purchase Doctor Pepper made from the original recipe there. The whole town is covered with Doctor Pepper signs and murals. Dublin is well worth the trip off the main highway to visit.

Walking in the Footsteps of Dimetrodons

paleo-dig-guest-2-resized.jpeg

Michele has been volunteering with the HMNS Paleontology Department in Houston for several months; she just got back from her first trip to Seymour, TX - where the Museum maintains a paleontology field program. Here’s her story:

After several months of studying under David Temple and the Paleo Prep station training at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I was fortunate to be invited to join their Seymour paleontology dig in April.

I have hunted for invertebrates for years, but nothing could prepare me for the experience I was about to have.

We were in the field, on a very blustery day and after hours of digging and removing dirt, I happened upon a large curve.  “This can’t be more Caliche,” I thought, and not sure of what I had found, I called Dr. Bakker (renowned paleontologist, and leader of the Seymour expedition) over to take a look.  You can’t imagine the adrenaline that was flowing as he excitedly replied “Wow! This is worthy of display and casting.”  I had uncovered a large humerus bone from a Dimetrodon.  Not only was I a newbie, I was hooked!  I was not the only one to unearth an ancient fossil. The discoveries of our mammal like ancestors were uncovered by members of the entire team throughout the week.  This was my most exciting find ever.

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Every evening after dinner, we gathered around the table to recap our day and finds.  The discussions were in depth and thought provoking to say the least.  What I found in these discussions was not just the bones we had been searching for but also the mystery of how often Dimetrodon ate, how he lived, and how he spent his last days.  While in the field, I could visualize these massive creatures roaming the hills.

Don’t get me wrong, the excavation is a real rush, but there is so much more than just the dig.  It is the sharing of theories and ideas with the team and learning about these giant, 292 million year old Dimetrodon as I literally walk in the footsteps of these incredible animals.

 

- Michele Whisenhunt