Sifting sands in search of bay history

December 27, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

As an archaeologist, Paul Hundley digs his share of sand. But in his case, he often finds the work obscured by a few feet of murky water and darkness.

Mr. Hundley is among a relatively rare breed of archaeologist who practices his trade underwater, examining sunken remains of antique vessels or submerged coastal land for clues about the lives of people long gone. It's not treasure he's after, but history, even prehistory, and Mr. Hundley says there's plenty to be discovered in the depths and shallows of the Chesapeake Bay.

Along with historic shipwrecks, there are sites that used to be on land and have since been submerged by erosion or rising sea level. Underwater archaeology, he said, offers the potential of discovering "the earliest site of human habitation in Maryland," because such a site would likely be under water now and "there would be no sign of it on land. . . . A lot of the Chesapeake bottom was land" at one time, he said.

Since June 1988, Mr. Hundley and two other men have worked under the auspices of the Maryland Historical Trust as the Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program. One of only about six states in the country with such a program, Maryland got into the underwater archaeology business after the federal government passed the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in 1988. The federal law made clear the states' title to historic wrecks within three miles of their shores and handed the states the responsibility for managing these historic resources.

The state program costs about $110,000 a year, including salaries for Mr. Hundley and his colleagues, Bruce Thompson and Steve Bilicki.

The three men recently completed their second full season of shoreline explorations. With the help of a few volunteers, the archaeologists dove to the muddy bottom and walked the shallows looking for traces of artifacts or sunken vessels.

From spring through mid-fall, they worked along the shores of Kent Island and Galesville, and by the Chester, Magothy, Wye and West rivers. They found about 250 sites that may be worth another look, making a total of about 500 sites discovered since the program began. About three-quarters of these were once on land, the rest are possible shipwreck sites.

"Finding things is relatively easy," said Mr. Hundley. "Proving what they are and how old they are and how significant they are is a much slower, more complicated process."

The program's most significant discovery to date came this year near Galesville in southern Anne Arundel County. There, by the shore of the West River, Mr. Hundley's crew confirmed the location of an 18th-century shipyard that was burned by the British in 1781. They found, buried in mud, the timbers that once formed the ways. They found what appear to be the remains of buildings.

It was not spectacular, but Mr. Hundley is not expecting to stumble on any sunken galleons bursting with gold and jewels. He said the publicity surrounding the work of such treasure hunters as Mel Fisher in the Florida keys has distorted the image of underwater archaeology.

"The first thing people think of is gold and pirates and treasure," he said. "The second thing they think of is finders-keepers."

That's a problem for archaeologists, for whom a historic site is like a big jigsaw puzzle; the more missing pieces, the harder it is to understand.

The state law that created the Maritime Archaeology Program gave Mr. Hundley's office jurisdiction over any site or structure that has been submerged for a century or more. It established conditions for divers planning work that could disturb a site and required a $500 permit fee for extensive surveys, a $1,000 fee for excavations. The law also limits the number of artifacts that may be taken from a site and sets fines and jail terms for violations.

This did not sit well at first with sport divers, who often dive on shipwrecks and pick up souvenirs.

"It just has set up some obstacles for people who are into that kind of diving," said Chaz Kafer, manager of Divers Den in Parkville. From talking with his customers, he said it appears most divers have found the law less restrictive than it first appeared.

But Divers Den Inc. president Joe Dorsey, who expressed strong opposition when the law was adopted, says the program is another example of government intrusion and excess.

Mr. Hundley, though, credits federal and state laws with saving the sunken remains of the 19th-century steamship Columbus, including the iron-and-copper crosshead engine, the earliest steam engine used extensively by ships in the Chesapeake. The wreckage was confirmed as the Columbus by independent archaeologists last spring after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered it while dredging a shipping channel in 1990. Under the law, the corps had to summon an archaeologist to examine the wreck for potential historic significance.

If not for the law, said Mr. Hundley, "the steamship Columbus could have been dynamited. It would have been the cheapest way to clear the channel. We would have lost the only example of a crosshead steam engine in existence."

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