Tuesday, September 07, 2004


Underwater archaeologists often leave finds behind


Of The Post and Courier Staff , September 5, 2004

The S.C. Division of Underwater Archaeology is about more than finding shipwrecks.

Part of the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, the division has a staff of three archaeologists and two assistants who review waterfront development that could harm underwater sites and license divers who collect artifacts and fossils.

Its jurisdiction is an enormous swath of water, including 11,000 miles of navigable rivers and coastline, extending three miles offshore.

State Underwater Archaeologist Christopher Amer said the division's work extends all the way inland. In Oconee County, it recently plucked an 18th-century canoe from the Chattooga River.

Most of the time, however, it leaves the wrecks in place.

Amer even calls artifacts "a pain in the butt," because of the high costs of conserving metal and other objects that have been buried at sea.

Increasingly, the division's divers raise an artifact just long enough to photograph it, then return it to the bottom.

"You're destroying a site when you excavate it. It's being arrogant to think the work we're doing is state of the art and no work can be done better than that," he says. "The new national and international standards say get all the information you can without destroying the site."

Of course, there are exceptions, including the raising of the Confederate submarine Hunley -- the division's highest profile effort.

Amer also values the quieter work he's done, such as the partial excavation of an old sailing vessel found in the mud along the Ashley River in North Charleston. Known as "the Malcolm boat," it was a typical example of how South Carolinians got around.

"That's the draw that really brings most of us with archaeology," he says. "We're dealing with ourselves in an earlier stage of society."

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