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common ground

Contested Waters
Fall/Winter 1996, vol. 1(3/4)

Online Archive

*  Underwater Archeology in Unexpected Places

(photo) Salvors search a ship in 1909.

"To make a discovery is the dream of most [sports divers]. A virgin wreck is a high-class trophy. It is also the first and last chance to record the scene in a pristine state."

John R. Halsey

by Daniel J. Lenihan

It should be no surprise to anyone involved in public archeology that the submerged lands of the Park Service have a significant cultural legacy. The marine parks come immediately to mind—"common ground" both wet and salty: Cape Cod National Seashore, the Virgin Islands, California's Point Reyes, and Florida's Biscayne National Park, to mention a few. Then, of course, there are the inland seas—our five Great Lakes. One of these parks, Michigan's Isle Royale, even had one of its historic shipwrecks used as the setting for a popular murder mystery. What we tend to have very little awareness of is the underwater world of our classic inland parks, far from the Gulf Coast or the shores of Hawaii. Few would guess that we manage almost as much submerged bottom land in Montana and Wyoming as we do in Florida (if we don't count semi-submerged places like Big Cypress and Everglades).

Yellowstone Lake—larger than Florida's Dry Tortugas and five times deeper—has everything from submerged steamboats to old docks and wagon wheels. Glacier has large natural lakes with associated pre- and post-European contact use, as well as two that are manmade. There are high altitude lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park and Jenny and Jackson Lakes in Grand Teton.

Anasazi ruins rest deep in Lake Powell and a sunken steamboat protrudes from the water near Lee's Ferry, both in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Lake Mead, together with Glen Canyon—its sister NRA on the Colorado River—has enough surface water to cover half of Rhode Island. These flooded river valleys, under 300 to 500 feet of water, contain more than 2,000 documented prehistoric and historic sites. Many of the standing walls of the Anasazi structures have collapsed but others have merely slumped. Careful examination with a dive light can bring into focus pre-Columbian rock art and other ancient features such as bedrock mortars, arrow-shaft straighteners, and loom anchors.

In addition to the reservoir sites, Arizona and Nevada parks have some underwater gems in bodies of water that are not manmade. Montezuma Well, surrounded by a Salado occupation area, is an archeological gold mine. A submerged limestone karst feature (powerful loci for archeological sites) at Death Valley's Devil's Hole has geologic cousins in caves at Ozark National Scenic Riverway, Buffalo National River, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, and Lake Amistad in Texas.

Just last year at Amistad, an NPS dive team including members of the submerged cultural resources unit rediscovered the entrance to Goodenough Springs venting through the lake's limestone bottom. At 130 feet down, the murky depths are pierced by a large volume of warm, crystal-clear water emerging from what had been, prior to inundation by the lake, the third largest natural spring in Texas. Other sites at Amistad NRA include the flooded stratigraphic profiles of Arenosa Rockshelter—with over 40 feet of cultural deposits—as well as historic ranch houses and the remains of old dam structures that, in different circumstances, might qualify for the National Register of Historic Places.

The tendency of dams to cannibalize their upstream ancestors actually presents a bit of a management problem. NPS archeologists and rangers spent several harrowing days in 1984 removing a drowned diver from a powerhouse, then under a hundred feet of water, which necessitated swimming down murky staircases and feeling through restroom stalls.

There is un-inventoried archeology underwater at Lake Meredith in Texas, barely touched at Oklahoma's Chickasaw NRA, and we can only guess what's under the many square miles of water in Montana's Bighorn Canyon, Colorado's Curecanti, and Washington State's Coulee Dam NRA. Upper Delaware Scenic River and the Water Gap are others on the unit's to-do list.

SCRU and Pacific field area archeologists made a start in the survey of Kauhako crater at Kalaupapa NHP, miles inland on Molokai. An ancient Hawaiian occupation area covers the rim of the hourglass-shaped crater. Considering that the water is over 700 feet deep, turns anaerobic after the first 20, and is crystal clear from there to the bottom, it doesn't take much imagination to see the archeological potential. The unit decided to hold off on further dives when the risk in helicopter operations became apparent, even though U.S. Marines were helping us out. They were happy to assist further but we and our National Geographic Society partners did not want "a few good men" on our consciences.

The NPS has a distinguished history exploring and inventorying the underwater world of our national parks, from grabbing for artifacts from clam shell dredges at Virginia's Colonial National Park in 1935 to nascent scuba projects at Arizona's Montezuma Well in 1968. Early on, NPS archeologists worked closely with park protection and maintenance personnel not only in research but to assist in body recovery, marina inspections, and replacing boundary buoys. The Park Service, in partnership with Scripps Institution, developed the federal government's first civilian diving policy.

Some of the NPS underwater universe is indeed unexpected but, with some consideration, should be quite predictable from an inventory standpoint. Underwater sites take some thinking before they come into focus. Charles Lyell, a gentleman who helped form the very foundations of modern earth and evolutionary science, summed it up over 160 years ago: "It is probable that a greater number of monuments of the skill and industry of man will, in the course of the ages, be collected together in the bed of the ocean than will exist at any other time on the surface of the continents."

And so they will. They will also be collected together in the nooks and crannies of the national parks.

For more information, contact Daniel J. Lenihan, Chief, National Park Service Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, 1220 South St. Francis Drive, Santa Fe, NM 87505, (505) 988-6750, fax (505) 988-6876.