Shipwrecks: Past & Present

How long should a shipwreck discovery be ignored while hoping for new technology?

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How long should a shipwreck discovery be ignored while hoping for new technology?

The following is copied from a note I posted on Facebook on Friday, November 11, 2011 at 5:43pm. I doubt that it has won me any friends at the SCIAA (the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology & Anthropology), but I think the truth needs to be told. 

I have been discovering shipwrecks for over 50 years. My first major discovery was that of the wreck of the Civil War steamer Georgiana. See

When I discovered the Georgiana there were no laws in place regulating salvage and/or protecting historical wrecks from being looted and destroyed. My attorney and I drafted what eventually became South Carolina’s underwater antiquities act, and my company was awarded Salvage Licence #1. But, when supervision of all such work was placed under the State Archaeologist (who against the S.C. Constitution was also serving as the Director of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology & Anthropology – SCIAA), we quickly learned that he would mainly use the law to block work, rather than insure it was being done properly. The State Archaeologist was not a diver and incorrectly believed that all shipwreck salvage was looting. He sincerely thought that no work should be done on any wreck for at least another hundred years to give the archaeological community time to develop appropriate equipment, methods and techniques. He did his best to stop our work and to a very large degree he succeeded. His views were shared by many of his proteges at SCIAA and greatly influenced the course of underwater archaeology in South Carolina and the negative ramifications are still being felt today.

It took approximately 45 years from when I first discovered (and reported) the wrecks of the Georgiana and Mary Bowers for any state official to even visit the wreck site. It is my understanding that archaeologists from SCIAA finally dove on it in 2010 (but just one trip, said they encountered near zero visibility, and haven’t been back). 

The deep draft, iron hulled, propeller steamer Georgiana was built in 1862/63 and was sunk in 1863 while attempting to run past the blockade into Charleston. While most contemporary and post war accounts referred to the Georgiana as more powerful than the armed steamers Alabama, Shenandoah and Florida and/or as the “most powerful Confederate cruiser,” other accounts indicate she was simply a merchant vessel. So there was/is much to learn from her archaeological study. She carried a cargo of munitions, merchandise and medicines and her destruction was considered of vital importance by U.S. Secretary of War Gideon Welles. Her official owner was George Alfred Trenholm (later Treasurer of the Confederacy and the man Margaret Mitchell used as the basis for her fictional blockade runner captain Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind”).

The shallow draft sidewheel steamer Mary Bowers was built in 1863 and wrecked in 1864 when she literally ran over and stranded herself on top of the previous wreck of the Georgiana. Unlike the Georgiana, the Mary Bowers was built specifically for the purpose of running the blockade.

The two distinct types of ships, built and lost within a very tight time period gives a unique opportunity for study and comparison and may allow us to solve lingering questions unanswered in historical records. In other words, the site is important both archaeologically and historically.

I personally find the state’s (really SCIAA’s) 45 years of delay in checking out the site incomprehensible. I honestly don’t know if the delay was caused by lack of leadership, or by incompetence, or by petty politics, or by petty rivalry and not wanting to recognize the importance of the discovery. But all that aside, in reality SCIAA still hasn’t checked it out. Less than one day’s diving in near zero visibility simply doesn’t do it.

The wreck has suffered major damages from storms and trawlers in the intervening years between when I discovered it (in 1965) and the present and, except for the pioneering underwater archaeology that I did on it in the 1960s and ’70s at private expense, it has not been studied. I did present a paper on my work (titled Underwater Archeology on the “Georgiana”) before the International Conference on Underwater Archeology/15th Annual Conference on Historic Site Archeology, Charleston, SC, 1974, but SCIAA was the sponsor of that year’s conference and the conference papers weren’t published that year.

My question, is how long do we (meaning the public) have to wait for SCIAA to do its job? What about the other wrecks that I discovered and reported to SCIAA, but could never obtain a permit to do any work on them (and thus didn’t). When will the time be right for SCIAA to properly study these wrecks or at least allow their privately funded investigation (with reasonable rules and regulations to protect important archaeological data)? I ask because the Georgiana and many other wrecks are being rapidly destroyed by natural causes (storms, oxidation, electrolytic action, abrasion, dispersal, etc.) and man (primarily damage from trawling). 

How long do you think we should wait? How long can we wait? Should the people who cause or allow such delays keep their jobs? I would truly like to hear your opinion.

The following comments were cloned from Facebook. You can add more comments below.

  • Scott Skeeter Currie

    Some times you should keep it a secret other wise someone will get a idea and take your discovery away from you
  • E Lee Spence Part of the problem I had with getting proper credit for my 1970 discovery of the Hunley was SCIAA’s trying to cover its behind for failure to check out that discovery for over a quarter of a century. I suspect it was a lot easier for SCIAA’s officials to try to claim I didn’t find it than to admit that they had failed to do their own job by ignoring my reports for decades. By SCIAA’s going along with Cussler’s claim to have discovered the Hunley in 1995, SCIAA didn’t have to answer questions as to why they had done nothing for 25 years. Fortunately, Dr. Mark Newell, who was the real director of the 1994/95 SCIAA/NUMA Hunley Expedition, has given a sworn statement that he used my maps and considers me the original finder of that wreck and that what his expedition did was to verify that it really was the Hunley.
  • Scott Skeeter Currie

    In Canada we have a problem if we discover a wreck we can’t claim it for salvage rights because the Government says all wrecks in the water are theirs.If we spend money finding such wrecks we are out of pocket.If we go past the 12 mile exclusion zone we still lose the wreck the Canadian government says its 200 miles we can’t win
  • E Lee Spence Please understand the above is offered as a matter of opinion. And I want to make it clear that in addition to a limited number who I think are incompetent, dishonest and/or negligent in their duties, I think there are many very competent and fine people working at SCIAA who do their jobs properly.
  • Scott Skeeter Currie

    Just keep on discovering take care
  • Chip Rex

    Too many archeologists (working for the government or for universities) ignore discoveries by people outside of academia because they don’t want to promote “treasure hunting.” And, when they finally do their job and go to the wrecks, most of them act like its a brand new discovery and take all the credit even though they don’t deserve it. I think they do it in part to cover up their intentional delay and justify the paychecks they get. There are plenty of good archaeologists, but those types are leeches. I said intentional delay, but I think some delays are simply because those bureaucrats are incompetent and just are negligent in their jobs. We need to encourage, not discourage, private enterprise’s involvement in shipwreck discovery so more work would actually get done.


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