SAVANNAH - Leather boots, the hilts of swords - even a stray earring - were among the nearly 30,000 artifacts recovered this fall from the wreckage of the sunken ironclad Confederate gunship CSS Georgia.
More than half of the haul retrieved during the $14 million government project, however, was of a much more mundane nature: nuts, bolts, washers, bent iron rails and other material that did not shed any new light on the lives of sailors serving aboard the vessel.
Altogether, 16,697 artifacts weighing a total of 135 tons were returned to a watery grave at the bottom of the Savannah River, said Jim Jobling, project manager for the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University, which is tasked with cataloging, cleaning and preserving artifacts from the Civil War shipwreck.
"Anything I considered to be unique, I would say, 'I want this, I want this,'" Jobling said. "I picked through everything. No unique stuff went back in the river."
The CSS Georgia was scuttled by its own crew to prevent Gen. William T. Sherman from capturing the massive gunship when his Union troops took Savannah in December 1864. Remains from the Confederate ironclad were salvaged during the summer and fall as part of a $703 million deepening of the Savannah harbor for cargo ships.
Based on sonar images of the murky riverbed, researchers knew they would fine big chunks of the ship's armor, several cannons and large pieces of its engine.
What they hadn't expected were the loads of small artifacts their cranes scooped up: Small buttons, hilts of knives and swords, an intact glass bottle, leather boots, and an earring among them.
"You would think, 'Oh, we've got four cannons, some large pieces of machinery,'" said Julie Morgan, the Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist overseeing the project. "But those were just the things we were able to ID on the sonar. That whole site was just covered."
Returning artifacts deemed redundant or damaged to the Savannah River was part of the plan all along, Morgan said. That still left a sizable amount to study: More than 13,000 pieces weighing a total of 142 tons were sent to the lab at Texas A&M. Jobling, who went in prepared to spend two or three years on the CSS Georgia project, said the final haul could keep the lab's staff busy for a decade.
The more than 16,600 relics they decided not to hang onto were placed in 10 storage containers, buried underwater, and covered with mud. The containers were moved to a part of the river outside Savannah's busy shipping channel. The relics and their location were documented so they can be retrieved in the future if needed.
Storing them in water will help preserve them, Morgan said, while exposing them to dry air would accelerate their deterioration.
Morgan said she is not concerned that private treasure hunters will go after any of the artifacts. Experienced Navy divers who helped raised the wreckage struggled with extremely low visibility as well as powerful tides that limited diving time to about three hours each day, she noted.
"What we reburied, we made sure it was completely covered and sunk down in the mud," Morgan said. "Somebody would have to work pretty hard to get in there."