Archaeologist Georgia Fox Conserves Lost 19th-Century Whaling Ship Artifacts
Artifacts from several shipwrecks recovered by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel Hi’ialakai have arrived at California State University, Chico to be documented, conserved, and analyzed. Professor Georgia Fox, director of the Department of Anthropology’s Heritage Resources Conservation Laboratory (HRCL), is the archaeological conservator on two completed projects, with a third underway.
The current project comprises artifacts from the U.S. whaling vessel Two Brothers, from Nantucket Island. Two Brothers was captained by George Pollard Jr., whose previous Nantucket whaling vessel, Essex, was rammed and sunk by a whale in the South Pacific, inspiring Herman Melville’s famous book Moby-Dick. Pollard went to sea again as the captain of Two Brothers, and once again, his ship met disaster when it hit a shallow reef off French Frigate Shoals, nearly 600 miles northwest of Honolulu. Captain Pollard and his crew clung to small boats for survival during a long, harrowing night. The next morning they were rescued by the crew of another Nantucket whaler.
The artifacts from Two Brothers include three whaling harpoon tips, two whaling lance tips, two ceramic shards, and one cast iron cooking pot. The artifacts arrived at HRCL in August 2010. Fox plans to complete the project by fall 2011.
Fox’s participation in the conservation and stabilization of artifacts recovered by NOAA from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) Marine Monument (one of 13 NOAA marine sanctuaries) first began in 2005, when HRCL contracted with Dr. Kelly Gleason, the maritime archaeologist for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument to conserve and analyze 28 artifacts. One aspect of the sanctuaries’ program is to monitor submerged cultural resources, such as historic shipwreck sites. Such sites are surveyed, assessed for potential excavation, and periodically monitored for changes due to natural or human-induced activities.
The first group of artifacts conserved in 2005 came from three shipwreck sites: the British whaling ships Pearl and Hermes lost in 1822 at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and the American whaler Parker, which wrecked at Kure Atoll in 1842. The artifacts consisted of an assemblage of metal, glass, and ceramic artifacts in various stages of preservation.
The second project Fox and the HRCL contracted to complete was the conservation and scientific analyses of two ships’ bells recovered from two shipwrecks located in the NWHI Marine Monument. One bell originated from the Parker shipwreck in 1842. The other was recovered from the U.S. Navy side-wheel steamer Saginaw, which wrecked in 1870. The bells were discovered in 2005, recovered in 2008, and sent to the HRCL to be stabilized and conserved in August 2008.
Fox presented the results of her research on the bells at the Society for Historical Archaeology 2010 conference, held at Amelia Island, Florida. The paper discussed the specific conservation treatments and material analyses of the bells and their components and how the bells relate to Fox’s ongoing research in the stabilization of archaeological copper and copper alloy objects from marine environments. The bells now reside in an exhibit at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo, Hawaii.
“This was a fantastic project which involved the generous assistance of a number of participants,” said Fox. Research participants came from CSU, Chico, the Chico community, and other universities and agencies. These included Dr. Robert Blanchette, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Minnesota; Chung Chong, former Chico State chemistry student; Dr. Robert Lauten, radiologist at North State Radiology; Dr. Ian MacLeod, Materials Conservation, Western Australian Museum—Maritime; Dr. Randy Miller, Chair, Department of Chemistry, CSU, Chico; Dr. Leonard Fallsheer, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Mechatronic Engineering, and Manufacturing Technology, CSU, Chico; Robert Patterson, Anthropology Department student intern; Dr. James Postma, Department of Chemistry, CSU, Chico; and Chico State alum Dr. Michael Pendleton, Texas A&M University.
—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications