Friday, May 06, 2005


Group needs funds to find artifacts in river


The Telegraph
By S. Heather Duncan
May 05, 2005

A local underwater archaeology group is planning to take a test dive in the Ocmulgee River this month to look for artifacts of early Macon.

If they find a historical site, National Park Service experts will use it to train 18 local divers in archaeology techniques in June.

However, the group needs to raise $2,000 in the next month to pay for the training, said Stephen Hammack, an archaeologist who works at Robins Air Force Base and heads the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society.

NewTown Macon has agreed to match those funds because it wants to place historical markers along the Ocmulgee Heritage Greenway at places like the old cotton shipping docks, said Mike Ford, NewTown CEO.

NewTown also is acting as a clearinghouse for donations to the effort. People can earmark donations to NewTown for the underwater archaeology project, Ford said.

The archaeological society was rejected for a grant from the Professional Association of Dive Instructors Foundation to cover the training.

However, Hammack said the National Park Service Submerged Resources Unit, based in New Mexico, has offered to donate its time for the training, although the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society must pay for travel, food and lodging.
Eighteen people will be trained, but they must make a time commitment, Hammack said. About 40 divers expressed interest during a meeting with the International City Scuba Club in Warner Robins a few months ago, so participants will be chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.

Steve Hoyt, who lives on the Ocmulgee in Jones County, is in line for training. A volunteer firefighter trained in underwater rescue, he has gone scuba diving in the river to look at fish for the past three years. But he never searched for artifacts - although he has found "artifacts" of modern life ranging from shopping bags to cell phones.
"It's a treasure hunt because you never know what you're going to find," he said.

But he sees the archaeological effort as more than a fun pastime. "It's important to our heritage," he said. "We will reap the benefits for years to come."

Divers will be mapping their finds but do not plan to remove anything, because what's taken from the water will begin decomposing rapidly.

Hammack said the divers will work closely with the state Department of Natural Resources law enforcement officers in Macon to watch for looters who may try to infiltrate the group and sneak off with artifacts.

Eric Klingelhofer, a Mercer University history professor and archeologist who also volunteers for NewTown, said a Mercer student project may help focus the divers' search.

Senior Keith Pilgrim has been perusing old copies of The Telegraph, insurance maps and other historical documents to learn what kind of boat traffic once traversed the Ocmulgee and where the wharves were. His completed report, which is supposed to include maps, will be provided to Macon and NewTown this summer, Klingelhofer said.

"He has interesting accounts of the earliest boats on the river and disasters - boats blowing up and that sort of thing," Klingelhofer said.

In the heyday of steamboats from 1840 to 1865, the wharves once extended from First to Seventh streets, Pilgrim said. The shipping industry died out for a while after the Civil War, when Macon got stuck with 100,000 bales of cotton on its docks and no way to deliver it. Riverboats revived briefly at the turn of the last century, Pilgrim said.

The boats were not only a commercial but a social hub. In the 1840s, bluegrass bands would play for dances on the barges. "It was the place to hang out," Pilgrim said.

This could mean divers have the opportunity to find not only nautical artifacts, but items used in daily life at the time.

Klingelhofer said, "It's a wonderful opportunity to invigorate a local society of volunteers doing good work that can help the city and NewTown to see what early river traffic was like, and maybe incorporate it into the design of the river area."

He suggested a riverboat dock and perhaps even a steamboat restaurant.

Ford said NewTown hopes to build a dock, historic or otherwise, on the greenway behind a building owned by NewTown next to Central City Park. The building has been discussed as a possible interpretive center for the trail.


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