Byline: Teresa Stepzinski, Times-Union staff writer
A ghostly fleet lies silent and deep in Georgia's waters.
Fish dart amidst shattered hulls and scattered cargo. Sand, silt and time engulf long-forgotten ships that historians say hold secrets of the state's past.
"There are all kinds of shipwrecks out there. The bottom is just littered with them dating back to colonial times," said Buddy Sullivan, who has authored several books documenting the history of Coastal Georgia.
Sullivan has been researching the state's coastal maritime history for 15 years. Once-proud warships and humble cargo vessels fell prey to hidden shoals, sudden storms and sneak attacks along the state's 100 miles of coastline, he said.
"The wrecks are largely merchant ships carrying timber, cotton or other plantation goods that hit the shoals or ran aground on a sandbar, then got pounded to pieces by the waves," Sullivan said. "There also are some warships, small ones from the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Most were blockade runners. And after the Civil War, there were steamships that went down along the coast."
Although no galleons laden with gold or jewels are likely to be found, Sullivan said, the state waters hide a historic treasure trove.
"Georgia has a tremendous maritime heritage and legacy but most people don't realize it. And that's because the maritime history of the state has never been properly documented," Sullivan said.
Until now, that is. Two surveys are under way to document and map shipwrecks as well as other underwater historic sites both inland and along the coast.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is funding research of maritime archives to determine the scope and context of the state's underwater archaeological sites. It is looking for evidence of everything from prehistoric activity such as dinosaur fossils, American Indian dugout canoes or fish traps up through wreckage of merchant and passenger vessels from colonial times through the 19th century.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Naval Historical Center is sponsoring research to catalog military ships sunk in state waters.
State archaeologist David Crass said both surveys began last spring and will take about a year to complete. They are the first phase in Georgia's fledgling and long-overdue underwater archaeological program.
"Georgia is roughly 25 years behind South Carolina and Florida in terms of how we manage our underwater archaeological resources. We have no program to survey, inventory, assess or manage these resources," Crass said.
Information gathered during those surveys will help state archaeologists develop a program to preserve and protect historic shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites. Divers then will be sent to gather samples from the sites, he said.
Researching the documents should reveal the whereabouts of known shipwrecks, but it won't help locate prehistoric dugout canoes, any other small craft wrecks or fossils. Once the records search is done, the state then must design and implement a program to find and document those sites, he said.
Until now, the state's maritime heritage has taken a back seat to research of its extensive land-based history. The public has largely ignored it because unlike Florida, there are no sunken treasure ships to capture people's attention or interest. And academically, there is only one graduate program in the state -- and it's only for prehistoric archaeology, Crass said.
To further complicate matters, the reporting of shipwrecks and other historic underwater sites has been "spotty" throughout the years, he said. So nobody really knows what lies beneath Georgia's waters.
Crass said it's important to catalog the underwater sites because during prehistoric times the rivers and coastal zone were the equivalent of an interstate system, and the "only record of the people and how they utilized these resources is the archaeological record out there. …