Sometimes the most exciting part of historic shipwreck recovery is not the actual underwater recovery of artifacts, but what happens behind the scenes in the conservation laboratory. While it is not glamorized in the same way as the exciting moments of artifact recovery, conservation is one of the most important aspects of the management of underwater cultural heritage.
Specialists spend countless hours in laboratories conserving and preserving many different types of artifacts. Every now and then, the process of cleaning unique items reveals something unexpected, telling a new and exciting story.
This was the case on Tuesday, January 21st, 2020, as Dan Porter and Chief Conservator for 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels, LLC, John Brandon, cleaned a gold religious artifact that was recovered by MRR last summer.
Gold religious artifact recovered by MRR from a 1715 site in 2019.
This magnificent religious artifact was recovered by diver Kenton Dickerson while the vessel Capitana was excavating a nearshore area of the 1715 site known as the Corrigan’s Wreck. When the recovery was made, MRR was working under contract with the permit holders of the 1715 sites, 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels, LLC, and the MRR team was excited to work with John Brandon to participate in the conservation phase for this unique artifact.
MRR diver Kenton Dickerson recovered the artifact from the Corrigan's Wreck site.
In preparation for cleaning the gold artifact, a working space was set up in a well-ventilated area with three stages of a mild acidic solutions, glass trays, assorted brushes, water and sodium bicarbonate. The artifact had a light coating of gorgonian concretion that would be removed with the mild acidic solution. After assembling the necessary materials and supplies, the process began by taking numerous photos for documentation. Then, with a fine brush, the concretion that was covering the face of the artifact was gently moistened with water to prepare the surface for an even and less abrasive application of the acidic solution. Then, the mildest acidic solution was gently applied to the concretion using a very fine, soft brush. The mild solution proved sufficient to slowly remove the concretion. As the solution was applied, the concretion began to dissolve and a beautiful site was revealed. The initials “IHS,” a symbol for Jesus Christ, slowly came into view.
The face of the religious artifact before cleaning.
The face of the religious artifact, believed to be part of a vessel to carry the host, after cleaning.
When the surface was clean, sodium bicarbonate was applied to neutralize the acidic solution. Then, the inside cover of the box was prepared for cleaning. The same process was followed and again as the concretion was slowly removed from the artifact, an unexpected, absolutely astonishing image was revealed. Slowly, a figure started to appear. First a face, then the shape of a body. As more concretion was gently brushed off of this beautiful artifact, wings became visible in the background and all team members present said the words “it’s an angel,” at the same time.
The inside of the religious artifact before cleaning.
The inside of the religious artifact after cleaning.
Immediately and excitedly, team members began discussing which angel is depicted on this magnificent artifact. The symbolic gesture of the angel’s finger pointing to Heaven connected the image to Archangel Gabriel and the story of the Annunciation. The scene is historically depicted in many artistic representations as the moment when Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to deliver the news that she would become the mother of God’s child. In many depictions of the Annunciation, Gabriel is seen pointing upward toward Heaven indicating to Mary that he was a messenger of God.
There is more to be learned about this artifact which will likely be revealed after it is studied by religious scholars and historians. At Maritime Research & Recovery, we take a lot of pride in sharing the recovery and conservation of one-of-a-kind artifacts such as this. Discovering pieces of the past is enlightening for people of all ages and ignites a sense of purposeful exploration and adventure in our youth. Stay tuned for the next update—a lot is happening at MRR!