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Conservators unearth, recover time capsule devoted to WWI vets

A U.S. Army soldier uses a shovel digging a hole searching for the remains of a U.S. servicemember missing in action since 2003, in Baghdad, Aug. 3, 2009. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Edwin L Wriston/U.S. Navy)
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Throw out any textbook. Forget any game plan. When it comes to historic conservation, there is never a par for the course.

“Every case is always different,” said Jason Titcomb, chief curator for the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program in St. Augustine. “You just have to see how you’re going to work around the challenges each step of the way.”

Conservators were reminded of just how tricky that process can be Monday when they attempted to open the contents of one century’s-old box, and then another box within it, at the program’s conservation lab.

LAMP — which is skilled at excavating, treating and preserving artifacts, especially those related to shipwrecks — was brought in to help last Thursday when a copper chest unearthed from Memorial Park in Jacksonville was found to have water damage.

The box contained parchment paper on which the names of 1,220 Floridians who died in World War I were inscribed. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day in November, the Memorial Park Association plans to display the document in a permanent home.

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The names were originally supposed to have been etched around the circular base of the park’s iconic “Life” sculpture created by famous St. Augustine artist Charles Adrian Pillars, according to Michele Luthin, who serves on the board of directors for the Memorial Park Association.

Instead, the scroll was placed in a kind of time capsule, soldered shut and buried beneath a bronze marker which was dedicated on the park’s opening in 1924. It remained there until last week, even as the grounds of Memorial Park were submerged last September in Hurricane Irma.

On Monday, conservators had the task of carefully extricating the parchment which they found after cracking open that capsule with tin snips and peeling back the water-softened metal like an aluminum can.

After more than three hours, Starr Cox, LAMP’s director of archeology conservation, put a flashlight up to the box and finally saw a fragment of white appear against the corroded orange interiors, calligraphed words legible.

“Oh, no. The whole thing is right here,” Cox said.

“Really?” said Ann Siebert, a retired paper conservator from St. Augustine called in to help.”Oh, my goodness.”

The team was not sure if it would make things easier or more difficult that the entire archive was wadded into a corner taking up less than a quarter of the box.

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And then Siebert’s realization.

“It’s definitely torn,” she said.

One piece, about a 3-inch-by-2-inch section of the scroll, was clearly glued to the bottom. The larger portion was waterlogged and also stuck to the wall.

With the precision of a surgeon, Siebert began using tools — tweezers, a spatula, a knife — to methodically separate granulated pieces of rust from potential pieces of parchment, rinsing them in water and placing each in separate glass containers.

“I can sort of feel when it’s metal,” Siebert said. “It has a different contact with the spatula.”

With Cox’s help, she would add water with a squeeze bottle to help loosen the paper, and alternately pour it off.

“If we twist it, it will tear so we need to build support around the structure and not tear that fabric,” Titcomb explained. “The water is creating buoyancy.”

Another hour or so chipping away like that, the team was able to dislodge and carry the triangular structure over to a waiting table in a cheesecloth.

Working it down like dough into a more manageable bundle — ” It’s like it’s starting to relax now,” Siebert said — she was able to unroll the document, which she estimated to be at least four different sheets of parchment.

The names began to emerge.

“Virgil Perry; I see a Paul Emanuel Perry; a Rufus Perryman; Joseph A. Peters,” Siebert read off.

The next steps will be to compare the listing with the research done by Dr. R.B. Rosenburg, a professor with Clayton State University in Georgia, who has found through public records more than 1,550 names of Florida residents who served and died in World War I.

“We are wanting to educate people, to bring their stories back to life again,” Luthin said. “His work will complete the process.”

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© 2018 The St. Augustine Record, Fla.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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