Thursday, July 14, 2005


Underwater excavations: This Santa Fe team protects and collects treasures from the waters of our national parks


The New Mexican
By Julian Smith
July 10, 2005

In a city full of surprises, one of the more unusual in Santa Fe is on the second floor of a Rodeo Road office building: a room full of high-tech scuba gear, including robotic vehicles and tanks of oxygen, nitrogen and helium.

It all belongs to the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center, where five permanent and three part-time members bring decades of diving and archaeology experience to projects around the world.

If it's underwater and in a national park, the Submerged Resources Center usually gets the call.

The team also works with other state and federal agencies, as well as with groups in countries from France to the Federated States of Micronesia.Their work combines the details of archaeology with the complexity, time constraints and risks of diving.

"You have to be comfortable enough with the diving so that you can get down and get back safely," said archaeologist Dave Conlin, who describes wanting to become an underwater archaeologist since seeing his first Jacques Cousteau movie as a boy. "You can't afford to space out." Dan Lenihan, an archaeologist and the center's founder, says its high-desert home came about because Santa Fe was close to many of the reservoirs that were created by dams in the 20th century.

In 1975, the National Reservoir Inundation Study was begun to study the effects of flooding on archaeological sites in the West. Santa Fe was chosen as its home.

In his book Submerged: Adventures of America's Most Elite Underwater Archaeology Team, Lenihan tells of the project's success and extended funding.

The group became the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit in 1980, and was renamed the Submerged Resources Center in 1999.

Shipwrecks have long been a major focus. As a scientific team, however, the center is concerned with preservation rather than recovering sunken treasure.

In 2000, the center provided core members to the team that brought the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine, to the surface after 136 years off the coast of South Carolina, near Charleston.

The experimental craft disappeared in 1864 after sinking the USS Housatonic in the first successful underwater attack in history.

A nonprofit foundation created by best-selling author Clive Cussler located the wreck, which is being analyzed and prepared for display.

Cussler's novels trace the exploits of swashbuckling marine archaeologist Dirk Pitt, played by Matthew McConaughey in the recent film Sahara. The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor has been the team's best-known and most complex undertaking.

Over the past two decades, the SRC team has fully surveyed and explored the 608-foot wreck, which remains a hallowed tomb for 1,177 U.S. servicemen.

"We're talking about one of the most iconic, some would say most sacred sites in America, and we're laying a scientific foundation for making future management decisions about the battleship," said SRC archaeologist Matt Russell.

The project was featured on the cover of National Geographic, and long-term environmental monitoring is continuing on the ship.

The SRC team is often called in to recover drowning victims or evidence that has ended up underwater.

In 2004, SRC divers surveyed a 1927 Chevrolet that had been found 170 feet deep in Crescent Lake in Olympic National Park in Washington StateHuman remains found nearby strongly suggested that the car belonged to Russell and Blanch Warren, who disappeared while driving home on July 3, 1929, from nearby Port Angeles. They left behind three children.

The Warrens' grandchildren are grateful that the mystery finally seems to be solved, according to news reports and SRC archaeologists.

In May, center divers explored the wreck of a B-29 Superfortress bomber that crashed into in the north end of Lake Mead in Nevada in 1948.

The bomber was on a secret scientific mission to test a device designed to steer missiles by the position of the sun.

The plane crashed into the lake at 230 mph, most likely because the pilot was hotdogging -- trying to see how low he could fly -- and cut it too close.

The crew escaped with nothing worse than a broken arm, but the bomber disappeared into the lake's depths. It was located in 2001 by local divers using sonar and are suing the government for salvage rights to the valuable aircraft.

The role of SRC divers is to document the wreck and prepare the area for divers who want to make their own decent.

Archaeologists predict the plane will become a popular diving destination, although at 170 feet, such a dive requires specialized gear and training.

The team has mapped the wreck and anchored cables to guide recreational divers to it safely. Their work was physically demanding: each center diver wore an insulated drysuit and carried up to 200 pounds of equipment.

On one two-hour dive each day, the divers spent half an hour at the plane and 90 minutes decompressing on the way up.

Larry Murphy, SRC director, said several projects are in the works, including ongoing work at Lake Mead and a survey of a sunken ferryat Ellis Island in the Gateway National Recreation Area . The boat sunk in 1968 and was one used to carry immigrants into the United States in the early 1900s.

"It's an important international heritage for which we are responsible," Murphy said. Lenihan said attitudes are starting to shift against underwater treasure hunting, as divers and the public realize that preserving the past is more important than cashing in.

"Lots of people frown on that now," he said of scavenging. "You don't sell your heritage to the highest bidder."


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