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College of Arts & Sciences
Maritime Research Division


Avocational Divers Dedicated to Historic Preservation

By Drew Ruddy, South Carolina Artifact Documentation Project

 

     South Carolina is unique in that it has cultivated an ongoing relationship with avocational archaeological diver/ collectors for over four decades.  It is among the very few government entities throughout the world that has allowed it’s citizens the tangible experience of touching and absorbing her past on the bottom of her waterways. Many divers over the years have been able to realize the thrill of discovery … their first prehistoric sharks tooth, a black glass bottle base, or a fragment of curvilinear Native American pottery.  Many divers have made extremely significant finds which have greatly contributed to our knowledge of South Carolina heritage.  It must however be realized that with the State sanctioned privilege of being allowed to impact unrenewable cultural resources, there comes a great responsibility.   There is no doubt that over the years, some licensees have been quite diligent and have provided extremely useful documentation.  A classic example is the hobby report of the 18th century sailing vessel at Brown’s Ferry which was subsequently raised, conserved and put on display in Georgetown.  It must be noted that most hobby reporters have filled out forms which may leave dating and identification of finds to be vague or open to inaccuracies.

     My colleague, Steve Howard and I met in our NAUI certification course in 1967.  We have dived South Carolina waters on SCIAA projects as well as having been long standing avocational archeological enthusiasts over the ensuing decades.  Over 15 years ago, we contemplated the significant amount of information that would be lost if private collections of divers were not photographed and the data made available for future researchers.  We started by photographing our own collections and those of some of our close friends.  We began a grassroots program to preserve elements of South Carolina heritage which has been dubbed the South Carolina Artifact Documentation Project.  Our motto is “Divers Dedicated to Historic Preservation”.  In reality, we photograph any artifacts which collectors share with us including prehistoric fossils, Native American artifacts as well as a wide variety of historic finds.  Over the years we have probably taken a few thousand artifact photos which include collections from Conway to Beaufort to Columbia.  In almost all cases, we have found that the divers/ collectors whom we have approached for participation in our work have been extremely welcoming and supportive.  Their cooperation and participation in our work has underscored a fact which we have long recognized… that South Carolina divers and history enthusiasts share a common bond and are some of the nicest folks around.

     After a collection is photographed, we prepare a booklet which includes photographs, site information and in many cases, dating and identification data.  This document is printed and provided to the collector.  A record of the collection may prove to be of use for insurance purposes.  If kept with the collection, it may also prove to provide a record of provenance to anyone who may inherit or otherwise possess the collection in the future.  The collection documentation is also shared with SCIAA to enhance their record of hobby diving data with photographs.  After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

     Our project has graciously been invited to participate in the University of South Carolina Digital Library photo collections web site.  In 2014, under the direction of Kate Boyd and John Quirk of the USC digital library, we began to display South Carolina artifact photos on their site.  A web search under the South Carolina Artifact Documentation Project will open the site for viewing.  Our goal over the coming years is to post a growing cross section of South Carolina prehistoric and historic finds for the benefit of future researchers and historians.  We deliberately maintain the anonymity of  the collector but will facilitate the connection of researchers with the collector upon the collectors approval.  

     As we accumulate data from a variety of collections, this allows us to build a growing database of finds from particular sites which may have been dived by a number of groups over the years.  By pooling the information about an identified dive site from multiple collections, this will enable a more comprehensive understanding of the site.  We have been involved with some report writing from the avocational perspective.  With a growing collection of artifact photos and an expanding list of sites, we hope to write further avocational reports.  Another project goal is to help translate diver speak to historical / scientific language.  For example, many sites over the years have been reported to SCIAA with such names as Joe’s Fish Camp or Bubba’s Arrowhead Hole.  We are working to help identify the historical context of these sites and record them in a manner identifiable to the researchers.  Using modern GPS technology, we have begun to work with SCIAA site manager, Keith Derting to be able to accurately expand the SCIAA  underwater  site files.      With South Carolina avocational historic diving now covering a span of 50 years, our project has noted that many of the stories of the pioneers of diving are a history in and of themselves, worthy of being preserved.  In the past few years, we have begun to conduct video recorded oral history interviews which will preserve first hand accounts of many of the significant sites, finds and personalities that are a part of our States heritage.   In addition to building a collection of the accounts of South Carolina divers, we have included interviews of memorable stories of the plantation and river culture.  One such interview was conducted by oral historian Andrea L’Hommedieu of the South Caroliniana Library and myself with Mrs. Martha Sullivan.  Ms. Martha recounted the details of how she and her husband Grover discovered the Strawberry Chapel silver communion service vessels which had been buried beneath the Rice Hope Plantation rice mill during the Civil War.  The pieces had been hidden to prevent their being looted as Charleston was falling in February 1865 and Union troops were scouring the plantation countryside.  After the war, the silver was not recovered and lay buried until 1946 when the Sullivans made the find.  The historic silver vessels are now on display in the Charleston Museum. A detailed account of this story can be found in the recently published book “Stolen Charleston” by J. Grahame Long of the Charleston Museum.

     SCIAA collections curator, Sharon Perkul has in the past graciously facilitated our project’s  access to the Willtown Bluff and Bluff Plantation artifacts in State curation to aid in our research and report documentation of these sites.  Another of our goals is to coordinate with the SCIAA curation department to photograph artifacts recovered on such early underwater projects as the Fort Dorchester and and Wadboo Creek underwater excavations.  Steve and I have worked on various SCIAA projects in the 1970’s and 1980’s and would like to further expound on the data and stories through written reports and oral history interviews.

     Steve and I are but two of the multitude of divers who have had our lives  greatly enriched  by the opportunity to touch South Carolina history on the bottom of her waterways over the past five decades.   It is the hope of the South Carolina Artifact Documentation Project to record recollections and artifacts collected by ourselves, SCIAA and others and package the data from each collection together as a gift to the future researchers and historians of our state's history.  We would like to invite any and all avocational hobby divers and collectors to allow us to include them in our photo documentation and oral history work.   In conclusion, it should be noted that all of our work is shared with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at no expense.  Our only goal is to help provide an avocational avenue to contribute to the sharing of stories of South Carolina’s heritage.  After all, we are divers dedicated to historic preservation. 

For more information or becoming a participant in the South Carolina Artifact Documentation Project, please contact Steve Howard (sh7seas@aol.com) or Drew Ruddy (drewruddy@aol.com).  Please visit the USC / SCADP website at library.sc.edu/digital/collections/scadp.html