ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The simple sight of a button is usually something people take for granted, but to maritime archeologists in Florida, a recent discovery is nothing short of a historical treasure- a rare war trophy claimed by a British soldier on American soil.
Historians believe more than a dozen British ships were departing the Southeast around New Year’s Eve in 1782 when a strong nor’easter sunk the ships carrying soldiers and their war belongings, including the button.
Divers with the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum found some of the wreckage off the Florida coast in 2010 and brought items back to their facility.
But the dive was only half the story, many of the items that spent centuries at the bottom of the Atlantic cemented themselves in hardened sediment, leaving plenty of work for archeologists to perform.
"Conservation takes a long time because a lot of these artifacts are found in what we call concretions, which is essentially like a rock with sediment that had built up over hundreds of years," Bobby Dye, a public relations representative for the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum said.
Conservators use a process called air scribing to clean and remove the centuries-old build up and usually, up until this point in the process, no one has any ideas of what is actually in the rock-like forms.
Researchers previously found a ship’s bell, a rare swivel gun, shoe buckles, and spoons, but the museum said a discovery in December surprised even their most seasoned veterans.
"When conservator Andrew Thomson saw ‘U.S.A’ interlocked in Roman letters, it leads to questions on why U.S.A. button would be on a British shipwreck," Dye said.
Evidence of a British victory
Historians do not know the exact age of the pewter made button, but it’s believed that soldiers of George Washington’s Continental Army first started receiving uniforms with the decorative items soon after the nation’s birth on July 4, 1776.
The newly formed 13 states were fighting for their independence against the British as part of the American Revolutionary War.
Historians say many of the battles involved close combat, and when a soldier was victorious in a skirmish, it was common that he would collect a keepsake to return home with.
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Buttons were easily stripped off the uniforms of the fallen, and researchers believe for a British soldier, his war trophy now rests at a lab in Florida.
"This button could very well be the first one ever found. We just aren’t sure," Dye said.
Discoveries may continue
The museum says their work with the button and other concretions brought back from the shipwreck more than a decade ago is far from over.
"There plenty of work to still do," Dye said.
Conservators believe the efforts of x-raying the remaining concretions and carefully examining each for signs of artifacts could take years.
It's not known if they'll discover more buttons or any other similar sized objects dating back to the 1700s.
As for their most recent discovery, its next stop is an extensive conservation process that will include desalination and coating it with a corrosion inhibitor.
The museum plans to have the historical button on display at its St. Augustine, Florida location by May.