March 30, 2012

New law could remove legal requirements for underwater excavations in Alabama

Posted at 1:11 pm in Similar cases

In what can only be a backwards step aimed at benefiting grab & sell type excavations, a new law proposed in Alabama would remove the need for treasure hunters to require permits for underwater excavations, as long as they keep away from Native American burial sites & shipwrecks.


New Alabama law could mean finders-keepers for historic artifacts found underwater
Published: Monday, January 16, 2012, 7:45 AM

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — A battle over historic artifacts hidden below the surface of Alabama’s rivers, lakes and bays is surfacing in advance of the opening of Legislature’s 2012 regular session on Feb. 7.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has introduced a bill to amend the Alabama Cultural Resources Act, a law that requires underwater explorers to get a permit from the Alabama Historical Commission before going after submerged wrecks and relics.

In Ward’s version, the law would still require permits for recovery of artifacts related to shipwrecks and would forbid disturbing Native American burial sites. But treasure hunters would otherwise be able to search state waters and keep what they find.

“The waters, just like the air, belong to the people,” said Steve Phillips, an advocate for the changes to the law. Phillips, an owner of Southern Skin Divers Supply Company of Birmingham, is the only person to ever have been arrested under the Alabama Cultural Resources Act.

At trial, Phillips was found not guilty of felony theft of a cultural resource but was convicted of misdemeanor third-degree theft. The charge stemmed from Phillips’ 2003 expedition in the Alabama River near Selma in search of Civil War relics, which ended with his arrest and the confiscation of a Civil War era rifle he’d found.

The incident sparked a still simmering conflict pitting Phillips and his fellow divers and collectors against the state Historical Commission and professional archaeologists who fear that removing the restrictions would lead to raids on underwater historic sites.

Aside from the protection of burial sites, there are no restrictions on the recovery of historic artifacts on private property, but artifacts on state-owned property — whether on land or under water – should not be available for wanton scavenging, opponents of the changes say.

Teresa Paglione, president of the Alabama Archaeological Society, said without legal protections, artifacts from the Civil War, the settlement of the state, the age of European exploration and thousands of years of Native American history could be extracted, kept privately or sold, and lost to history. Those artifacts in state waters belong to all the people of the state, Paglione said.

“(The changes to the law) would allow divers like Mr. Phillips to conduct little more than scavenger hunts for relics — like a game of finders-keepers, except individuals get to keep what belongs to the state of Alabama and its citizenry,” she said.

Lost history

On a recent afternoon, Phillips was at the Museum of Iron and Steel at Tannehill Ironworks State Historical Park where more than 100 artifacts he’s loaned — from Selma-made bullets to a tree trunk with a large shell lodged in it — are on display.

Phillips recovered some of the items by diving but much of the rest he bought from museums whose collections are overflowing with artifacts. Phillips has more of his personal collection on loan to Confederate Memorial Park in Clanton and other museums, and the remainder is available for loan, too.

His interest in being able to dive the rivers flows from a personal passion, not profit, he said.

“I haven’t sold a relic in 25 years,” Phillips said. “I want to know what is under there.”

Besides, you couldn’t make a living selling relics anyway, Phillips said.

“Not a chance. You couldn’t make enough to pay for your gasoline,” he said.

Phillips doesn’t hide the fact he’d like to see more divers in the waters of the state. It’d be good for business, but, he argued, it would also be good for recovery of lost history.

Without amateurs and collectors, Phillips said, much of the knowledge base professional archaeologists rely on wouldn’t exist.

And besides some shipwreck exploration, there isn’t any professional underwater archaeology going on anyway. An energized corps of amateurs would likely produce new discoveries.

“Archaeologists don’t do it,” he said. “Is it better for it to rust and fall apart and be lost forever?”

Paglione and others said that artifacts in freshwater environments are oftentimes better off remaining underwater rather than being brought to the surface where they quickly decay unless carefully preserved. And for archaeologists, random expeditions and finds that might or might not be reported add up to a recipe for lost knowledge.

Knowing where an artifact is found and what is found near it is often more important than the physical artifact itself, Paglione said.

“A popular saying in archaeology is, ‘It is not what you find, but what you find out,'” she said. “If an object is removed from its context with no understanding of its intrinsic informational value, there is a substantial loss to the archaeological record — and the heritage of Alabama,” she said.

The conflict over the issue has led to poor relations and name calling between the two sides of the issue.

Ward said he hoped that through discussion in the legislative process, the conflict can be resolved. Ward said he found the wording of the current law ambiguous. He said he would be open to amendments that would be more protective of valuable historic sites. He doesn’t want to lose valuable archeological sites, either.

“That is not my intention at all,” he said.

At the same time, Ward said, it should be clearer what is permitted. Ward said he’d like to get suggestions from academics and Historic Commission representatives.

“I’m glad to sit down and work with them,” Ward said. “I don’t want to give the divers carte blanche. I want to make the law better.”

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