The Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) manages the Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory which is primarily tasked with the documentation, treatment, preservation, and curation of artifacts from US Navy sunken military craft. Artifact conservation is an integral part of any archaeological investigation and allows for the long-term study, interpretation, and preservation of irreplaceable submerged cultural resources.
Recently, the Archaeology & Conservation Lab has been treating a group of Enfield rifle barrels from the wreck site of USS Tulip. Purchased by the Union Navy during the Civil War, Tulip, a steam-screw gunboat, joined the Potomac River Flotilla in 1863. Tulip was tasked with towing, transporting and landing soldiers, supporting Union communication, and maintaining the Union blockade of Confederate ports. The vessel later sank off of Ragged Point, Virginia on 11 November 1864 after her defective starboard boiler exploded. The sinking claimed the lives of 49 of the 57 sailors on board.
USS Tulip and her associated contents, like all US Navy sunken military craft, remain property of the US government regardless of the passage of time or location, and are further protected from unauthorized disturbance or artifact removal by the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA). Many of the artifacts from Tulip are a painful reminder of the importance of protecting and preserving these archaeological sites. The Tulip artifacts were removed without permission in an unmethodical manner and did not receive conservation treatment after recovery. Because of this, many artifacts which were likely very well preserved at the time of recovery became seriously deteriorated due to unmitigated corrosion and dry storage in a non-climate controlled environment. Archaeologists have also lost the valuable information that is conveyed by documented artifact provenance on an underwater site.
After a two year effort by the Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program, over 1,500 artifacts, previously removed from the wreck site of USS Tulip in the late 1960s, were returned to the US Navy and sent to NHHC for conservation. The artifact collection includes military uniform components, navigation equipment, ceramics, personal items, medical items, ship’s hardware, tools, ordnance and artillery including the Enfield rifles. These particular rifles were manufactured by the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield (London), which was owned by the British government and produced weaponry such as rifles, muskets, and swords. The rifles were a popular weapon with both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War for their accuracy and reliability. Both the Union and the Confederate armies purchased Enfield rifles from the British to outfit their troops.
The Archaeology & Conservation Lab has been able to conserve and preserve several of the USS Tulip Enfield rifle barrels. To prevent further corrosion on the barrels, conservators used a process called Electrolytic Reduction (ER) to remove the corrosion-causing compounds from the artifacts, effectively stabilizing them. The barrels were then carefully cleaned and coated with a solution which bonds to the iron and creates a protective film on the surface of the barrels. After all the barrels have received conservation treatment, they will be temporarily stored in the curation spaces in the Archaeology & Conservation Lab with the hope to eventually place them on exhibit.