Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Group explores scuba diving in Ocmulgee


Macon Telegraph
By S. Heather Duncan
January 10, 2005

Jeff Jones has received some funny looks when he says he's going scuba diving in the Ocmulgee River.

The river many locals call "Old Muddy" is often red and very shallow as it passes through the city of Macon. But Jones' underwater explorations have uncovered pottery shards in the riverbed between Interstate 16 and the Otis Redding Bridge.

"You can dive in the Ocmulgee," said Barry Hudson, who lives on the river in Macon and has found prehistoric artifacts in it. "When it's low and green, it's time to go."

Divers and archaeology buffs are preparing to join forces to start more focused searches for clues to Macon's history beneath the Ocmulgee's waters.

The Ocmulgee Archaeological Society and local divers met Thursday night to learn more about underwater archaeology training, funding, research and more so they can look for the remains of Macon's steamboat piers starting this spring.

"Georgia has a massive number of sites under water, historic and prehistoric," said Charles Kelly, president of the West Georgia Underwater Archaeological Society. "In this area you're going to have a wealth of sites."

Kelly spoke to the Ocmulgee group Thursday night about his society's last three years of work mapping a huge underwater archaeology site in West Point on the Chattahoochee River. They hope to eventually turn the area into an underwater trail system like existing ones in Florida and South Carolina.

The 1.5-mile West Point site includes covered bridges, railroad trestles, pontoon bridges and ferry crossings from the 1800s, as well as four or five sunken steamboats and everything that fell off the boat wrecks and bridges.

"It's really neat in that you'll find a nice 1880s wagon wheel next to a 1950s hubcap," Kelly said.

The group has found a wagon with four mule shoes still standing neatly in front of it; perfectly preserved whiskey jars; huge anchors; and a Civil-War era Union calvary sword. The river crossing was also the site of the Battle of West Point.

Generally, Kelly recommended mapping only, not removing artifacts from the river bed. Preserving, storing and displaying objects is very expensive, especially because most items pulled from the water will immediately start to deteriorate. One anchor that was removed is already a pile of rust, he said.

Any artifact found in a river belongs to the state and can't be removed without a permit. The West Georgia group has pulled out only a few items, like the sword, that the state underwater archaeologist feared would be stolen otherwise.
Kelly said the main goal is to learn about the past, document the site and protect it from looters.

Before his group began its work, "A lot of the site had vanished in Alabama as people were taking stuff and selling it on eBay," he said. Now, the site is patrolled by city police and the Department of Natural Resources. Local residents are so proud of it, they act as watchdogs too, Kelly said.

The group has received grants to support their activities, and the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society hopes to pursue grants too, said organizer Stephen Hammack.

Hammack, who is the archaeologist for Robins Air Force Base, hopes to try other archaeological dives in Houston County and Hawkinsville.

A handful of organizations offer underwater archaeology training to certified divers, teaching them how to triangulate distances, measure with string, mark their measurements on slate, and dust sediment from underwater artifacts.

The Ocmulgee society might be able to arrange low-priced training from the National Park Service, said Jim Adams, a retired underwater archaeologist for the service who lives in Cochran.

Jones, Hudson and members of the International City Scuba Club were enthusiastic. "It's exciting being able to dive and discover something," said club member Butch Ashwood, adding that he expects many of the club's 40 or so active members will want to participate.

Although most of the research is done by divers in groups of five to 25, other volunteers are needed to uncover portions of the site on the riverbank, keep field logs, conduct historical research and draw maps, Kelly said.

Mark Whipple, a diver and historic preservation planner with the Middle Georgia Regional Development Center, said the center's global positioning equipment might be available to help with mapping.

Kelly said the Ocmulgee effort has a high chance of success because it can draw on an existing archaeological society and local dive clubs with instructors and gear.

Hammack said he will try to set up a large meeting with the scuba club, inviting all interested divers. A date has not yet been set.

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