As it broke the surface off Cape Hatteras, N.C., this week, the long-lost turret of the USS Monitor, the Union ironclad that forever changed the nature of naval warfare, looked more like a barnacled wheel of Brie than a lost relic of American myth.
But within its rusted shell, the revolving gundeck of the famous ship holds clues to far more mysteries than the shape of gears or caliber of cannon. Sporting deep dents made by the CSS Virginia's cannons in an indecisive 1862 battle near Hampton Roads, Va., the Monitor turret represents American ingenuity and bravery. Its raising returns the ship long the stuff of legend to, as one archaeologist puts it, the "land of reality."
As they approach the shell, curators at the Mariners' Museum, the Newport News, Va., facility that plans to conserve and house the turret, have some basic questions. Will they be able to identify the human remains found under the turret and return them to their descendants? Will they find the bones of the ship's cat that reportedly was stuffed into an 11-inch cannon barrel as a storm off Cape Hatteras caused the ship to founder on its way to blockade Charleston?
Nearly as important, experts say, is the impact the Monitor project may have on the resurrection of newly discovered sunken American treasures from a blockade runner off Galveston Harbor to a Confederate merchant raider off the coast of France.
"I personally think projects like the Monitor contribute to additional interest in wrecks like the [blockade runner] Denbigh," says former North Carolina state archaeologist Gordon Watts, one of four researchers who found the Monitor in 1973. "But some people wonder whether all the focus on the Monitor will be at the expense of other projects,"
At any rate, the the famous ironclad is not the last American relic to be salvaged from the seabed.
This week, the Navy dispatched experts to England to determine if a shipwreck off the coast is the Bonhomme Richard (also called the Bonnie Dick), a French frigate that helped change the tide of the Revolutionary War. From its bow, American patriot John Paul Jones is supposed to have cried, "I have not yet begun to fight." Though the Bonnie Dick was sunk, Jones and his crew won their battle. Their success helped to bolster Washington's tired corps back home.
Next week, Mr. Watts and others will meet in Washington to chart the next steps in recovering more treasures from the CSS Alabama, a famed Confederate raider that sank 65 Union merchant ships off the European coast and decimated the US merchant marine to a point from which it has yet to recover.
Meanwhile, off the coast of Galveston, Texas, divers are busy raising money to recover more artifacts from the CSS Denbigh, one of the fastest Confederate blockade runners.
By some estimates, as many as 3,000 wrecks, many of them American, await discovery worldwide. And though most archaeologists say the recovery of the Monitor is likely to renew interest in the nation's sunken history, some worry that the paying public may hit history overload.
"What has to be demonstrated is that people care, and what that means is box office," says Jim Delgado, cohost of the National Geographic TV show "Sea Hunters." "The key now to seeing if more of these recoveries happen is, how do people respond?"
The challenge for the Mariners' Museum which has vowed to raise $30 million for a Monitor center to open in 2007 will be to distill personal stories and revelations from the rusted-out hulk of the turret, and to highlight the 240 patented innovations it contains including its revolutionary gearing and an "air conditioning" system.
But ultimately, "the stuff of history is the individuals who make it," says John Hightower, director of the Mariners' Museum. As divers unjammed the turret this week, a family sent the museum 86 letters from a New York fireman, George Geer, who was on the Monitor when she sank. Watts says his favorite find is a jar of relish: curators analyzed it, and even distilled it into a "Monitor relish" recipe.
But there is also a line of recovery zeal that can be destructive to cross, warns David Howe, president of the Maritime Archaeological Historical Society in Washington. He points out that though Italian archaeologists raised two of Emperor Caligula's 2,000-year-old warships in the 1930s when Lake Neni was drained, both were lost during Allied bombing a few years later.
"My own knee-jerk reaction is to leave some of these ships down there," he says.
Still, for divers taking part in the Monitor recovery, the past year has been tough, but satisfying. Some stayed under water for a week at a time breaking the mold for what divers can accomplish, and sure to have an impact on salvage projects for years to come.
But for all the impressiveness of their performance, Navy diver Rob Moran of Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., says the recovery of possibly three sets of sailors' remains was their most reverential task.
"It's an honor for us to be able to bring home not necessarily their casket, but where they've been hiding for the past 140 years," he says.