NORTH CHARLESTON — A few years ago a man was playing fetch with his dog by a Lowcountry waterway. When the pup couldn’t seem to find his favorite ball near the water’s edge, the owner waded in and stepped on something hard. By the time he pulled it out of the water and had most of the pluff mud off it, he realized he was holding what appeared to be a very old musket. As it turned out, the musket was more than 200 years old, most likely used during the pre-Civil War era.
Cool story, right? But what happens next in this treasure discovery, while not near as compelling, is equally important to the well-being and preservation of the artifact. In steps the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA), the agency responsible for protecting the state’s underwater archeological heritage. Any time an artifact is found in water in the state of South Carolina — more specifically, from riverbank to riverbank and up to three miles offshore in the Atlantic ocean — SCIAA’s Maritime Division comes to the rescue.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, whatever it is they find, they get to keep it,” explained Jim Spirek, an underwater archaeologist with SCIAA. Spirek said it’s usually old anchors snagged in shrimp boat nets or small pieces of pottery people find while walking along the beach. But once in a while, when it’s something like guns from a battleship or, in even rarer cases, an historic submarine like the H.L. Hunley, his group is called in to take charge.
Last month, SCIAA moved its Charleston field offices to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on Clemson University’s Restoration Institute campus in North Charleston. The Lasch Conservation Center is a 45,000-square-foot facility at the former Charleston Naval Base that houses state-of-the-art equipment, from electron microscopes to three-dimensional scanners. It also has a room with a 75,000-gallon tank with two 20-ton cranes on rails where research and conservation is conducted on the aforementioned H.L. Hunley.
For the previous 25 years, SCIAA was located in a modular office building on James Island at the headquarters of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
“This is light years better,” said Nate Fulmer, the underwater archaeologist with SCIAA who heads up the North Charleston office. “Don’t get me wrong, we were treated great and it was a nice place, but it was very isolating. To be in here, surrounded by like-minded individuals with the same goal of conserving our state’s underwater history, it’s such a luxury.”
In addition to providing SCIAA with a more permanent home base, the new office means easier access to a conservation team like Clemson’s at the Lasch center.
And that’s no small thing, since SCIAA is a part of the University of South Carolina with its main office in Columbia.
“Despite what you might hear during football we’re proving we can work together under one roof,” Fulmer said, laughing. “But in all seriousness, we have a lot of crossover with Clemson. We’ve worked a bunch with them over the past few decades on projects ranging from the Hunley to the Pee Dee cannons, which were discovered just a couple of years ago. Being so close makes coordinating efforts and discussing strategies so much more seamless.”
Spirek said SCIAA also plans to work directly with Clemson in the coming years to investigate the blast damage on the USS Housatonic, the ship recognized as the first to be sunk by a submarine in combat when it was attacked by the Hunley. What they learn could shed even more light on the sinking of the Hunley.
Once an object is found and SCIAA comes in, its job is to investigate the archaeology and manage the excavation of the object.
“It’s not Indiana Jones here,” Fulmer said. “We don’t go raiding sites. We always go out with a plan. We have the right tools. We have every stage planned out before we disturb the site. Archaeology is very destructive. We only get one chance to get something out.”
Once the object is carefully removed from where it was found, it is delivered to conservators and scientists like Clemson’s team at the Lasch center, where they handle the analysis and conservation of the object with the end goal being to restore it to the way it looked the last time it was used.
“Having these folks that we work with so closely and who have such vast knowledge of underwater archaeology right here, just down the hallway, is huge for us. We are thrilled to have them as neighbors,” said Stéphanie Cretté, executive director of the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. “We look forward to partnering with them many more times in the future.”
Bryce Donovan is with Clemson University Relations.