Suddenly, a dark gray mass appeared on one of the screens -- a sonar image of the wreckage of the Civil War-era frigate USS Cumberland.
As members of the Cumberland Club, the kids studied artifacts from the ship, then helped researchers beam sonar to the bottom of the James River near the coal piers in Newport News to check on the condition of the ship itself.
The U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hold the summer enrichment program, which gives students a hands-on feel for what it's like to be historians, archaeologists and marine scientists.
"It was fun to be able to do things that are important that kids don't usually get to do," said Jazmine Brooks of Norfolk, who'll be in eighth grade in the fall.
The Cumberland Club, now in its second year, is free to the middle school students and funded by a grant. To be selected, students wrote essays on "Why is history important?"
Before their river outing, the 18 students spent a week studying and going to the naval museum and The USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News to learn about conservation and archaeology techniques and the history of the Cumberland.
The ship, launched in 1842, sailed to a number of Mediterranean ports, served in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican-American War and patrolled the coast of Africa to suppress the slave trade.
The Cumberland was anchored off Newport News on March 8, 1862, when the CSS Virginia arrived to attack a Union blockade. The Virginia pushed her iron ram into the Cumberland's side and the ship began to sink, its gun crews continuing to fire. About 100 men died.
The fight demonstrated the superiority of armored, steam-powered ships over traditional wooden sailing ships.
The next day, the Virginia and the Monitor fought a battle that ended in a standoff. The Virginia had torn off most of its iron spar when it backed away from the Cumberland, and some historians think the Monitor was spared from further damage because the spar could have penetrated the hull below its armor.
Today, the Cumberland's wreckage is protected by law. The Cumberland Club students got to handle some artifacts that belong to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
On one afternoon, the students looked for damage as they turned over the pieces in their gloved hands, then photographed the items for the museum's records and wrote reports describing the objects and recommending how to conserve them.
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Most of the items were fairly easy to identify: a door hinge, a pulley, a spike.
Cameron Parsons and David Hart, 13-year-olds from Virginia Beach, weren't sure what they had been given. It looked like two small pieces of wood held together by three rivets. One rivet was inscribed "Philada."
"That's cool," said Michael V. Taylor, the museum's preservation officer. "I have no idea what it is."
David, using a magnifying glass, spotted on the "Philada" rivet what looked like an engraving of the scales of justice. Maybe the artifact was associated with the ship's legal officer, Taylor told the boys.
They may get to find out for sure. NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration is providing $1,000 for enhanced restoration for Cumberland artifacts, and the Cumberland Club voted to use the money in part to conserve the "Philada" piece.
Cameron said he enjoyed studying the artifacts "because we're finding real stuff, not recreation stuff that adults set up for us."
"And it's fun to see stuff that people used like a really long time ago," David added.
The following week, in late June, the students spent a day aboard the Bay Hydrographer, a 56-foot NOAA research vessel. They helped researchers use side scan and multibeam sonar to scan the Cumberland wreckage, as well as the nearby wrecks of the Confederate ship CSS Florida, which accidentally sank on Nov. 28, 1864, and a third, unknown ship.
James S. Schmidt, contract archaeologist with the underwater archaeology branch of The Naval Historical Center, will crunch the data collected.
Taylor believes the program will have a lasting impression on the students.
While many kids spend their summers hanging out, Taylor said, "Cumberland kids get to say,
'I went out on an archaeological expedition with The Naval Historical Center on a NOAA boat and we went to the wrecks of the Cumberland and the Confederate Florida. You know, they're important wrecks and important cultural resources.'"
On the Net:
Hampton Roads Naval Museum: http://www.hrnm.navy.mil
Press; by Sonja Barisic]