New Imaging Technology Aids QAR Conservation Efforts

Sep 18, 2014

This small cannon from the ship is one of hundreds of items being conserved at ECU's QAR lab.
Credit ECU News Services

Conservators with the Queen Anne’s Revenge project have utilized new x-ray technology to further efforts to preserve artifacts brought up from the Beaufort Harbor wreck site of the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship. George Olsen has more.

Literally thousands and thousands of artifacts have been brought up off the ocean floor since the 1996 discovery of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Some of the items that come up are easily identifiable. Others… not so much.

“Most objects that come up aside from the cannons and anchors which have a very diagnostic shape come up as an amorphous blob, and there’s no way by looking at something to tell what’s inside of it. That’s why the x-rays are so important to our task here because that helps us decide what’s inside it and what needs more conservation attention or what is more diagnostically interesting for the archeologists to study.”

Kimberly Kenyon, a conservator with the Queen Anne’s Revenge conservation lab in Greenville. She was speaking to me back in April of this year in advance of the lab using a new x-ray technology to better understand what was encased inside those “amorphous blobs.” The lab has used conventional 2D x-ray technology to try and decipher what exactly is inside a concreted artifact. Over the summer they planned to try out 3D x-ray technology being used at Davidson College. They completed their scans last month with positive results.

“The most distinctive artifact that came out of this exercise was one we had x-rayed before. We could make out some faint details of the object and we theorized it may be a coin, and then we were able to use that with Davidson’s imaging technology and they were able to verify it was a coin and because their essentially 3D technology is more like a CT scan. It could scan through the artifact and they were able to isolate the two different faces of the coin and we were able to identify what type of coin it is.”

The 3D couldn’t quite provide enough detail to indicate when the coin was struck but provided enough detail to indicate it’s similar to a coin that was earlier recovered from the wreck site and now on display at the Beaufort Maritime Museum. So what you’ve got is 3D showing what was thought to be a coin was actually a coin. On the surface … so what? But for a conservationist, getting that detail… indicating that what you have is likely a silver coin similar to one previously recovered, indicates how to proceed.

“The corrosion products that occur on silver are of a completely different nature from those that occur on iron. So whereas the iron requires a lot of mechanical removal, the silver involves a chemical reduction process to get the corrosion products back to a metallic state, because essentially all that silver has migrated out in to the concretion so we have to get it back into the coin.”

The 3D also provided some proof that even pirates have to do a little “field engineering” to keep a ship running. 

“We did x-ray one hand tool, and those are unique objects in the fact we don’t have many of them but they are a specific tool that was used on the ship so those are interesting to work on. We did x-ray that one with Davidson and they were able to basically help us to see details in the concretion that we can’t necessarily tell in our x-ray films, and what this showed was a small additional piece of iron wedged into the handle of the tool that looks like some kind of modification during its use, so maybe that tool broke in the past and was re-modified so they could keep using it.”

Kimberly Kenyon called the 3D imaging software an “incredible tool” for their conservation process. Still, there were some disappointments. Kenyon says they were able to get images on about ten items. However, some especially weighty concretions were immune, so to speak, from the 3D x-ray process.

“It was more a limitation of the imaging plates that they could use. There are larger, more powerful plates that can take a higher amount of radiation exposure, but because you need such a high amount of radiation to penetrate the really dense concretion, you need a plate that can accept that radiation as well, and that’s what we were limited with during this experiment.”

But now they know, meaning future 3D look-sees at artifacts coming off the Beaufort Harbour floor might reveal more detailed secrets sooner rather than later. Kimberly Kenyon is a conservator with the Queen Anne’s Revenge conservation lab in Greenville. I’m George Olsen.