COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The Texas A&M Conservation Lab is known to be, at any given moment, chock-full of historical artifacts. Right now, they’re working on a massive Native American canoe, found in Louisiana, the wreckage of the CSS Georgia, a Confederate ironclad ship, and original cannons, used in the battle of the Alamo.
“You mean you don’t have a cannon in your backyard? We have so many in the lab at the moment,” said A&M Conservation Lab Director Jim Jobling
In October 2017, the lab agreed to restore seven historic cannons from the Alamo’s collection. Many of which were used in the battle.
The process began with two cannons. Restoration began in October and was finished in January 2018. Then, the newly cleaned cannons were returned to their rightful home at the Alamo, exchanged for two different cannons, which are currently being restored at the lab.
The goal was to bring the rusted and in some cases broken cannons back to their original fighting shape.
“These are actual artifacts, artifacts from the battle of the Alamo. And they’re important and we need to have them conserved, said Alamo Curator and Historian Dr. Bruce Winters. “So, my knowledge of conservation I automatically thought Texas A&M Conservation lab.”
The conservation process wasn’t exactly easy. Researchers and graduate students were working to repair two types of damage.
The first two cannons the Alamo sent to be conserved were rusted and worn, from years of sitting idle. Not to mention, they were filled with decades-worth of rocks and dust, some of which were curtsey of Santa Ana’s Mexican Army.
“They [The Mexican Army] broke the trunnions off the cannon and filled it with some rocks in the back. And, also drove a nail through the top," said Conservation Lab graduate student Dan Bishop.
The Mexican soldiers' goal was to make the cannons inoperable, after slaying the Texans defending the Alamo mission.
“Most of the things we do in life can be done by a 14-year-old,” quoted Jobling, paying homage to the lab’s founder. “It just takes someone with the wherewithal to break it down to its individual [tasks].”
There are multiple steps to restoring decades-old cannons back to their original shape. First, the cannons are cleaned. Rust, dirt, and chipped paint are removed, along with objects (like rocks or cannon balls) that may be wedged in the barrel. Next, the cannons are dropped in an electrolysis bath (a special concoction meant to knock loose the remaining rust, paint, and whatever else). The cannons sit in the bath for weeks and must be loaded in and out via forklift. Finally, the cannons are painted and elements of the barrel are restored to how they once looked.
Jammed in one cannon was a jagged rock, believed to be wedged in the barrel by one of Santa Ana’s troops. The conservationists at the lab were tasked with removing it.
“This is really the closest you can get,” said Dan Bishop.” “You don’t get to see what’s behind those rocks in this case, but we do.”
And, once they removed the rock and poured out a few decades-worth of dirt, they found the prize conservationists and researchers dream of: a new artifact.
“There was a shot down the aft end of the barrel,” said Jim Jobling. “I looked at [a colleague] and said, ‘Think about what your holding. Who handled that last? 1836 February. Somebody loaded it the gun and they never fired it. It was the last shot.’”
A four pound cannon ball, last touched 181 years ago, pulled from the inner reaches of one of the cannon.
“The man with the most toys”
The A&M Conservation Lab is a small, cramped, and stuffy cathedral to our history. You can’t take a step without bumping into something that’s been restored or is being restored. And, with that bump, you may touch something that hasn't been handled in generations.
“It’s the closest thing to a time machine that you can get,” says Dr. Bruce Winters.
Researchers and conservationists will tell you they do what they do for a love of history; a desire to preserve what we’ve left behind for future generations.
“Think about it,” Jim Jobling reminds us. “We’re preserving our past for our future. It’s a second life.”
There were mixed emotions when the cannons were loaded up to return to the Alamo. The lab’s staff exhibited clear pride, happy to show off the work they’d done. They were also anxious, examining the two new cannons that would be swapped for the two that had now been restored.
But, Jobling and his colleagues were also slightly solemn. They’d clearly grown connected to the cannons they were preserving. For just a moment, they’d gotten to live some element of the history they had worked so hard to preserve.
“The cannon are mine. I cleaned them,” said Jobling when asked about his connection to the artifacts. “They’re always mine. The man with the most toys wins."