A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In Vermont, underwater archaeologists and recreational divers swim off into the sunset.
My compatriot and I started a slow descent down the mooring line in Lake Champlain, Vermont, through green water growing ever darker, to the bottom 65 feet below and a sign--yes, a sign--directing us to a wreck just beyond. As we swam farther, its wooden hull rose up like an exhibit at a Disney theme park. But this was no theme park. It was, more accurately, an underwater preserve, whose main purpose was to provide scuba divers with easy access to some of the lake's many historic shipwrecks.
Almost any wreck accessible to divers, particularly to hard-core wreck divers who take along wrenches, hammers, and pry bars, is quickly denuded of artifacts. The divers' contention is that such objects would eventually be destroyed anyway by the sea if they were not pulled up. For these reasons, though, some governments around the world have made it illegal for recreational divers to visit historic wrecks. But in this region of Vermont, they take a different approach. In 1985, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation established an underwater preserve of these historic wrecks for divers to visit. The idea was a simple one: the wrecks are public sites and, to the extent possible, should be made available to the public. Because these wrecks have all been fully documented, their most significant artifacts removed and conserved, the creation of the park faced no opposition. It was a counter-intuitive action, flying in the face of the preservation movement's conventional wisdom, but it worked.
Jerry Shine is a freelance writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.