Artifacts Ahoy! Old Cannon, Saddam's Gold AK-47 Among Naval Treasures

gold plated AK 47 from iraq
A close view of a gold-plated AK-47 captured in Iraq. (Image credit: Collection of Curator Branch: Naval History and Heritage Command, distributed under a Creative Commons license)

The U.S. Navy is organizing its deep archives — and highlighting bizarre artifacts such as a gold-plated AK-47 assault rifle and a mini-cannon dating back more than three centuries.

The Collection Management Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command is conducting an "artifact baseline reset," a detailed process that involves combing through the entire naval archives to make sure each item is correctly labeled, catalogued and preserved. Most of these items are not on public display, but part of the process includes photographing each artifact and putting nearly every photo online. The result is a fascinating array of items, from guns and ammunition to medals and even model ships.

"Our goal is to see more of our artifacts being used to illustrate stories about the Navy's history and heritage, and to have these images available to the public once they are all digitized," Karen France, the curator branch head of the division, said in a statement. [See Photos of the Naval Artifacts]

Curious collection

The Navy's collection includes artifacts from many of the country's conflicts, including medals from the Revolutionary War, a case of nastily sharp tools that were used to perform amputations during the Civil War, and even a conch-shell lamp painted with an image of the USS Enhance MSO 437, a mine-sweeping ship that was launched in 1952.

The jewel of the collection, however, is the Navy's set of historic weapons, France said. This collection dates back to the late 1800s, when Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren set up the Navy's first research and development program. Dahlgren liked having an archive of old weapons for reference when inventing new ones.

Julie Kowalsky holds up an experimental minigun. This mini-machine gun never went into production. (Image credit: U.S. Navy Photo/RELEASED)

"We have weapons that are pre-American Revolution to current operations, and that collection also includes weapons made for the Navy, its allies and adversaries," France said.

Among the oldest weapons is "San Bruno," a 6-pound (2.7 kilograms) bronze cannon cast in 1686 for King Charles II of Spain. The cannon was named after an 11th-century monk and scholar, Saint Bruno.

Another oddity in the collection is a gold-plated AK-47 assault rifle from Iraq, likely used in formal ceremonies under dictator Saddam Hussein. U.S. forces seized the gun during the Iraq War.

Military experiments

Other weapons in the collection were designed for the Navy itself. These include a .69 caliber percussion rifle designed by Dahlgren himself and an experimental mini-machine gun that never reached the production stage.

Some items in the archive are decidedly low-tech, such as a ceramic grenade taken from Japan during World War II. These grenades were made near the end of the war, when metals were scarce. Artifacts from the Vietnam War include a left sandal, made from an old car tire, which was worn by a Vietcong soldier.

Several items in the collection reflect recent history. The archive holds a crumpled laptop that survived the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon, as well as fragments of stone and window glass from the building.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.