Hunley lantern conservation complete; provides clue to old mystery

The lantern before conservation was complete (left) and after conservation was complete (right). (Dave MacQueen/WCIV)

By Emily Shuart

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- "You're looking at a resurrection."{} That's how Paul Mardikian, head of conservation for the Hunley project, described a small lantern that was recovered from the wreckage.

"This object is made of iron with a little thin layer of tin, so you can imagine what happens when it's under water for more than a century," Mardikian said.

The lantern was found inside the submarine and was completely corroded to the vessel.

"If you don't treat them properly, you lose them," he said about artifacts recovered.{} "They disintegrate when they dry and start to crumble."

To keep that from happening, Mardikian and a team of other conservationists have worked for years to restore the lantern at a lab in North Charleston.{} He said none of the materials were stable; everything needed some sort of treatment. The first thing the crew did was to x-ray the lantern and look at the "belly" of the object to see how much metal was left.{}

"Everything was gone," he said. "That object was holding just by the corrosion."

The lantern has gone through several years of treatment.{} He said the only way to preserve the object is to use a combination of chemical treatment and hard work.

"The other thing we are trying to do is not restore the object so it looks new," Mardikian explained. "That is not the goal.{} We are trying to preserve the objects so they can be presented as truly as possible to what they were originally."{} He said unless structurally the lantern needs to have holes filled, conservationist won't fill them.{} "That is the difference between restoring and preserving."

Clues to the past

Perhaps what has so many interested in the lantern is Union and Confederate accounts.{} When the Hunley sank the Housatonic off the Charleston Harbor in 1864, a blue light was mentioned.{} But the lens (also called an eye piece) of the lantern is clear.

"The eye piece is extremely big," Mardikian said, pointing to the lantern.{} "It's very heavy.{} The lantern is extremely heavy.{} It doesn't really look like it, but it's very heavy."

Scientists say they don't think there ever was any sort of blue coating on that eye piece.{} The mystery could be in naval terminology. Scientists say it seems at that time the term blue light referred to any sort of emergency light or flare - not simply light blue in color.

The Hunley sank before it could return from its mission.

"It's like an FBI investigation," Mardikian said. "But it's a very cold case."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.