Old Ship, New Tale: The Story of Conserving Royal Savage

By: Kim Roche, Intern, Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch

Recently, the remains of an old, and somewhat forgotten, revolutionary war ship, the Royal Savage made their way from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. It is a unique experience for an underwater archeologist to partake in the research and preservation of a Revolutionary War – era ship, especially one that directly contributed to our nation’s success in the War for Independence.

Royal Savage’s Service Record

Originally constructed by the British, the schooner was sunk by American forces in 1775 during the siege of St. Johns, Quebec. Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 1775 the vessel was raised and repaired by American forces, and reinstated as part of the Continental Army in the Lake Champlain squadron. Christened this time as the Royal Savage, she served as the temporary flagship of General Benedict Arnold during his command of the squadron. The American defense of Lake Champlain lead to the defeat of British General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, a critical turning point in the war. She ran aground after returning to the American line and, after it was deemed she could not be used by the opposing forces, the British set to burning her.

Royal Savage’s Moving Day

Today, more than 1,300 timbers and artifacts comprise the remains of Royal Savage. The time invested into this move is just the beginning of the documentation and conservation timeline. Taking on that much history requires a well-designed moving plan a prepared weeks in advance of the transfer. We can’t pick a moving company from the local phonebook, so after arriving in Harrisburg, the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) team of archaeologists, conservators, and interns divided into two groups: one group assessed and prepared the Royal Savage artifacts located at the National Civil War Museum while the second group prepared and packed the Royal Savage timbers stored at an off-site location. The artifacts were found in varying states of preservation. Expert knowledge and experience are necessary for both teams to quickly and accurately determine their stability for transport. The teams carefully prepared and packed each artifact and timber, employing a systematic packing process and specialized packing design where needed. The fragile condition of the Royal Savage timbers, in addition to their size and weight, provided significant challenges and required elevated care in preparation for the two-hour trip to Washington, D.C. – where the real work truly begins in the NHHC Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory.

What’s Next For Royal Savage?

Upon Royal Savage’s arrival to the NHHC Lab on the Washington Navy Yard, each artifact and timber will be documented, catalogued, and stabilized. Each artifact will be evaluated to determine the appropriate conservation treatment necessary for its immediate and long-term preservation. The conservation of these artifacts is an important aspect of the research and interpretation process. In the end, archaeologists hope to reconstruct the original lines of the ship which will serve as a vital tool in understanding the construction of similar vessels from this period. The artifacts will offer further insight into daily life and customs aboard Royal Savage. In essence, we are “bringing to life” a ship vital to our nation’s history. The complete conservation and reconstruction of Royal Savage is estimated to be a multi-phase, multi-year project.

NHHC is grateful to the city of Harrisburg for their cooperation in transferring the remains of Royal Savage to the United States Navy for study, preservation and appreciation. This is an exciting opportunity for everyone involved, and we look forward to updating the public as the project progresses.

Stay tuned to The Sextant for updates as the documentation and conservation process begins!

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