Archaeologists begin intricate task of saving DeBraak's hull


Archaeologists begin intricate task of saving DeBraak's hull

Molly Murray

Source -|topnews|text|Home 



Pair of woven socks recovered from HMS DeBraak now stored in special containers made by Francis Lukezic of the Divison of Historical Affairs. / THE NEWS JOURNAL/GARY EMEIGH

The musket balls, once at the ready for an 18th century sea battle, are vacuum packed in the same plastic bags home cooks use to store leftovers.

The socks, a little stained, but otherwise perfect -- are spread out in acid-free boxes.


Francis Lukezic shows off one of the boxes she made to protect artifacts recovered from the DeBraak wreckage. / The News Journal/GARY EMEIGH

And the bilge pump rests in a specially built roller cart.

But the one piece of the 18th century HMS DeBraak -- raised from the sea floor off Lewes in the summer of 1986 -- that hasn't been carefully conserved and preserved is the largest of some 20,000 artifacts: the giant section of the 85-foot long vessel's hull.

For more than two decades, the hull section, about 30 percent of the original ship, has been stored in a warehouse near Lewes. A steady stream of fresh water keeps the wood -- which dates to pre-1798 -- wet. And over time, it has washed away salt deposits, tiny bits of debris, mud and sand.

Now, state archaeologists are beginning to tackle their biggest conservation challenge yet with the DeBraak collection, considered world class by researchers and historians.

"There is no other vessel like this," said Charles H. Fithian, the state curator of archaeology, who has worked on the DeBraak since thousands of artifacts and the hull were raised from the sea floor in summers of 1984, 1985 and 1986.

Now, he said, they must develop a conservation plan for the hull remains.

"We could make a serious mistake and ruin it," he said.

The components

The DeBraak hull remains are made from oak, held together with copper fasteners. Copper sheets protected the hull from destructive wood parasites.

A critical step now is to figure out the chemistry of the hull remains -- how much sea salt is left in the wood and what chemical reactions have occurred since the section has been in storage under the freshwater spray system, he said.

Once that is understood, state officials will be able to come up with a plan to preserve the hull and protect it from chemical breakdown, Fithian said.

No one is sure how much the additional work will cost. Developing the conservation plan will help determine how much money is needed for the final stage of conservation work, he said.

The artifacts from the ship -- items like leather shoes, metal belt buckles, dinner plates, bottles and even the ship's bell -- were remarkably well-preserved when they were first discovered by a treasure-hunting salvage company in 1984.

The DeBraak was believed to be a treasure ship and, though historians knew that she sank in a sudden windstorm at the entrance to Delaware Bay in May 1798, finding the remains proved difficult. When it was finally discovered in 60 feet of water off Cape Henlopen, the decks were not awash with gold as the legend went.

The real treasure turned out to be the artifacts, the hull and the stories they have allowed researchers to pull together, Fithian said.

State officials ended up with an amazing piece of history, a ship that tells many stories of the British Navy at war with France and soon to be at war again with the fledgling United States .

"The DeBraak is such a neat story because it links Delaware to these events," Fithian said. Over the past two decades, state archaeologists, with the help of contractors and antiquities experts, have conserved everything from a near pristine wool cap to the socks, the cannon balls and the 16 cannons that went with them.

The cannons -- the $250,000 restoration work was paid for by the Delaware River and Bay Authority -- were originally so encrusted with marine rust and debris that they looked like one-ton chicken nuggets.

They were shipped off to a conservator in New Jersey , who removed the encrustrations to reveal near perfect cannons. One was still loaded.

The preservation

The ship and its artifacts were so well-preserved because of a combination of shipboard and environmental factors, Fithian said.

First of all, there was plenty of gunpowder on board.

The chemical reaction between the sand, the sediment and the gunpowder made a unique environment that was virtually oxygen free. Without oxygen, there were no bacteria to break down the delicate fibers of cotton, linen, wool and leather.

Also, the area where the ship sank, where currents from the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay collide, caused the remains to be quickly covered with mud and sand, Fithian said.

Fithian opened the door of a storage cabinet in a climate controlled warehouse and there are row upon row of leather sword scabbards, looking old but in almost perfect condition. Same for several leather shoes.

Fithian said the ship is especially interesting because it was originally Dutch, captured by the British and then refitted to British military standards. The conversion took place as increasing mechanization of industry in England was occurring, so some of the artifacts show the attention to detail of handmade items while others show a country on the cusp of industrial revolution.

Meanwhile, remains of the DeBraak grudgingly reveal their secrets.

One new discovery is the possibility that some crew members believed in folk magic. Sixteen plates, state officials have discovered, include scratch marks on the bottom that were likely believed to ward off evil and bring good luck, he said.

There is still a mystery surrounding a silver trophy cup in a neoclassical design.

"These just didn't get casually made," he said. "How did this trophy cup get here?"