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A good story

At the end of the last post a story was promised, and really it is too interesting not to share. Here at the Monitor Center we are fortunate enough to have our own x-ray machine. Normally we use this device to x-ray concretions to determine what the artifact inside looks like. On a Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago, we were examining something a little different. Will, Fred – the conservator for the museum collection, and I were x-raying a painting.

Now this particular painting depicts the USCS Robert J. Walker, a survey ship that served in the United States Coast Survey from 1848 until it sank in 1860 resulting in the death of 20 crew members. The United States Coast Survey was an ancestor organization of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The Walker disaster was the greatest loss of life ever experienced by NOAA or any of its precursor organizations. June 21, 2013 was the 153rd anniversary of the sinking; it was also World Hydrography Day. This year NOAA observed this day by honouring the men who lost their lives on the Robert J. Walker. They have also requested the painting as a loan from The Mariners’ Museum so that it can be displayed to commemorate these lost sailors.

The painting of the USCS Robert J. Walker

The painting is in need of conservation work prior to going on loan and part of that includes proper documentation. This would be why one Thursday morning Will, Fred and I x-rayed a painting. This is where things start to get . . . unusual. On the back of the canvas is a handwritten note “Loss of the US Brig Somers”, which is not by any stretch the subject of this painting. This lead to the suspicion that perhaps the Robert J. Walker was not the first ship depicted on this canvas, but we didn’t really expect to be able to prove it.

We had to x-ray the painting in three sections as it is larger than our x-ray plates. Will then digitally stitched these images together and there it was; a completely different ship from the one visible in the painting and clearly sinking.

X-ray of the USCS Robert J. Walker painting. The second ship, the USS Somers is slightly right of center and tipped sideways.

While not quite as exciting as finding a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, there was a definite movie-like quality to this moment. This is not something that happens in real day-to-day life in the lab. This is something you read about or see once at a conference.

Almost as exciting as finding a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence

The USS Somers has its own interesting bit of history. This is the only ship in the United States Navy to undergo a mutiny leading to executions. Three men were hung for plotting mutiny and buried at sea in 1842. The ship sank four years later, and its lasting legacy is that due to the mutiny on board, the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland was founded.

Check back to the blog soon as we will be posting the results of the origami challenge and updates of our progress in the lab.

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