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25 Years in the Making: The U.S. Navy’s Underwater Archaeology Program

Underwater archaeologist Dr. Alexis Catsambis prepares to dive as fellow archaeologist Dr. George Schwarz hands him an underwater video camera.

Underwater archaeologist Dr. Alexis Catsambis prepares to dive as fellow archaeologist Dr. George Schwarz hands him an underwater video camera. Both archaeologists, assigned to the Naval History and Heritage Command, are conducting the excavation of the suspected U.S. sloop-of-war Scorpion. The ship was scuttled in the Patuxent River to avoid capture by British forces during the War of 1812 (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth G. Takada/Released 100806-N-9671T-023).


In the spring of 1953, a group of private citizens expressed to the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General that they were interested in salvaging the wreck of USS Monitor (McClure 1953). They wanted to know whether the Navy would relinquish all claims to the ship if they were successful in their efforts to establish the ship as a “National Shrine.” This request sparked a number of internal Navy exchanges, culminating in a letter from the Chief of Naval Operations to the Secretary of the Navy stating that Monitor was not essential to the defense of the United States, and that the Navy maintained no interest in the hulk other than an historical one (Carney 1953). The Secretary was advised that Monitor be declared abandoned and proceeded to do just so on September 30, 1953 (Carney 1953; Fogler 1953).

Launched during the American Civil War, Monitor was the first U.S. Navy ironclad, the first warship built without masts or sails, and the first to benefit from a rotating turret, meaning its guns could train on a target without having to maneuver the entire ship. It symbolized the mid-19th century revolution through which wooden, wind-powered ships-of-the-line would give way to steel, steam-powered battleships (Schneller 2002:2, 5). It is striking that of all historical Navy vessels, Monitor was the one to suffer the fate of legal abandonment, despite the fact that the wreck had not even been discovered at the time. By 1967, in tune with the broader historic preservation movement of the decade, the U.S. Navy refused a request from a diving club for salvage rights to USS Tulip, another Civil War era vessel. The refusal was on the basis of respect for crew members entombed within the wreck, ordnance still on board, and foreseeable damage to the historic and archaeological integrity of the site (Eller 1969; Neyland 1996:103). The tide had turned.

The U.S. Navy Embraces Naval Archaeology

In the late 1980s, Dr. William S. Dudley, then head of the Early History Branch, and future senior historian and director of the Naval Historical Center (NHC), recognized the need to create awareness within the U.S. Navy of the importance of underwater cultural heritage sites and of the potential of naval archaeology (Dudley 1990:88–90; Dudley 1991a:1–5). Up until then, the NHC’s mission had concentrated on the preservation and interpretation of historical records and operational archives, oral histories, as well as the development of the Navy Department Library. The preceding decade, however, had been one of great tumult in the field, with the passage of the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987 in the United States and the rise to prominence of several U.S. Navy shipwrecks, including USS SomersUSS KearsargeUSS TecumsehUSS CumberlandCSS Florida, and perhaps most consequentially CSS Alabama (Dudley 1993:2). The discovery, handling, and investigation of these sites challenged the ambivalent status quo within the Navy, and accentuated the difficulties of managing, preserving, and learning from what are now referred to as sunken military craft. Unauthorized salvage of artifacts from USS Somers, USS Cumberland and CSS Florida highlighted the difficulty in preventing exploitation of naval shipwrecks (Dudley 1993:3-4). Without a cohesive policy and mission, Dudley posited that the U.S. Navy risked exploitation of its sunken shipwrecks, the potential desecration of war graves, increased hazard to public safety because of unexploded ordnance, and the loss of historical artifacts of a special nature. Through the preservation and interpretation of these artifacts, Dudley recognized that archaeologists had the ability to challenge historical preconceptions or cultural biases with objective analyses, revising, supplementing, or modifying existing historical interpretations (Dudley 1993:11; Neyland 1996:16).

The beginnings of the U.S. Navy’s involvement in naval archaeology can be traced back to a single site. On October 3, 1989, the governments of France and the United States signed an agreement establishing a joint committee for the preservation, protection, and study of CSS Alabama (Dudley 1991b:49). The partnership stemmed from the efforts of two non-profit organizations, the French “CSS Alabama Association” and the American “Save the Alabama Committee,” who were interested in studying the Civil War commerce raider (Dudley 1991b:47). Given the location of the site within France’s territorial waters near Cherbourg, the U.S. Government ultimately recognized French equities associated with the historical site, while the French Government conceded U.S. title to the shipwreck (Department of State 1998; Dudley 1993:7; Roach 1991:382). Yet there was an omission in the agreement – no specific U.S. government agency was identified to execute its terms on behalf of the United States (Dudley 1991b:49). Dudley saw an opportunity. In December 1989, the Secretary of the Navy, on the recommendation of the NHC, sent letters to the General Services Administration, the National Park Service (NPS), and the State Department proposing that the Navy take the lead in the case, and inviting the Chief NPS Historian to be part of the joint committee (Dudley 1991b:49). Dean C. Allard, Director of Naval History, and Edwin Bearss, Chief NPS Historian, took on the roles as the American representatives on the joint committee, assisted by Dudley and Ervan P. Garrison, underwater archeologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (Pull Together 1991:11–12). The committee met for the first time in June 1991 and agreed to a non-intrusive survey of the site and selective artifact recovery for those artifacts deemed to be at risk. The NHC accepted the responsibility to oversee the treatment of artifacts stemming from the site, and by January 1992 artifacts from the ship were on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and en route to an exhibit in the Museum of the City of Mobile in Alabama (Peachey 2010; Pull Together 1991:12, 1992:11).

The foundation had been laid. Starting with a catalog of 32 presumed extant Civil War wrecks compiled by Captain M.D. Roberts, a Navy reserve officer in the NHC’s Volunteer Training Unit, Dudley set out to establish a new mission for the Center (CNHS 1989:3). Its objectives were multifaceted, but concentrated on the monitoring and preservation of U.S. Navy underwater wreck sites, the protection of the Navy’s legal interests, the provision of sanctity for watery graves of U.S. seamen, and the encouragement of historical understanding of related naval events (Dudley 1990:90; Dudley 1991a:5).

The Beginnings of the Navy’s Underwater Archaeology Program

The Navy’s “newfound but abiding interest” in maritime archaeology was codified in August 1992 when the Secretary of the Navy bestowed upon the Director of the NHC the role of principal technical advisor for matters including naval shipwrecks, aircraft, and underwater archaeology (Dudley 1990:90; Dudley 1991a:5; SECNAVINST 1992). Within a few years, the NHC had drafted a submerged resources management plan, initiated a desktop inventory of more than 2,500 shipwrecks and 5,000 aircraft wrecks, established an in-house conservation laboratory, spurred on the development of a conservation handbook dedicated to underwater archaeological material, and supported archaeological investigations of Navy sunken military craft tied to the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (Cooper 1994:134; Dudley 1995:111–14; Hamilton 1996). Funding for this research largely originated from the Department of Defense’s Legacy Resource Management Program, which was established in 1990 to support efforts to preserve natural and cultural heritage (LRMP 2017). Additional support came from partnerships with the NPS National Maritime Initiative, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) and universities such as the Maine Maritime Academy and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Dudley 1995:112; Neyland 1994). Unlike other federal agencies, the U.S. Navy found that it rarely controlled the river-, lake-, or sea-bottoms, which hold its submerged wrecks. This meant that other state, federal, or even foreign agencies often shared in the responsibility to manage historic naval ship and aircraft wrecks (Neyland 2002:775). Accordingly, agreements were reached with the states of Florida, Maine, North Carolina, Texas, and Vermont to create regional naval wreck inventories and a more effective framework for managing cultural heritage sites (Neyland 1994:8, Neyland 2002:775). These were soon followed by agreements with Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington (Neyland 2002:775). In 1993, the NHC partnered with the state of North Carolina to administer its first diving preserve involving the wreck of USS Huron, providing both for public education, as well as enhancing the preservation of the site. By 1995, the NHC and the state of Maryland launched the U-1105 dive preserve, having already addressed the conservation and exhibit of associated recovered artifacts (Dudley 1995:113–14; Neyland 1994).

While establishing its own position, the U.S. Navy also acknowledged the important principle of international reciprocity that is still adhered to today. Accordingly, the U.S. Navy upheld the title of other governments to their warships, whether in the U.S. or in international waters, and, largely informed by the case of CSS Alabama, expected similar treatment in return (Dudley 1993:9; Dudley 1995:112). International partnerships quickly emerged on the heels of the Franco-American effort; U.S. and Mexican authorities collaborated on USS Somers, while the United States, Colombia, and Nicaragua, all maintained an interest in USS Kearsarge, lost on the Roncador Banc (Dudley 1991b:49, 1993:8).

In a position stipulated by then NHC Director Dudley, the U.S. Navy publicly recognized its role as custodian of its wrecked ships and aircraft (Dudley 1995:111–12). These craft were not abandoned by virtue of neglect or the passage of time, and they remained government property in perpetuity unless the Navy elected to formally divest of them. The NHC did not shy away from asserting its position in several legal disputes involving both aircraft and shipwrecks that set important precedents in favor of maritime heritage preservation and the Navy’s stewardship role (Dudley 1995). These precedents built on the important case of Hatteras, Inc. Plaintiff v. The USS Hatteras, her engines, armament, apparel, cargo, appurtenances, etc. in rem, and United States of America, in personam (1984 AMC 1094, aff’d, 69 F.2d 1215, 5th cir. [1982]), decided by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in 1980. The court found that the common law doctrine of abandonment had no application in the case and that only the United States Congress (and those authorized by Congress through appropriate regulations) holds the power to divest public property under the property clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2) (Dudley 1993:2–3; Neyland 1995:12; Neyland 1996:98). The Navy vigorously pursued unlawful salvage claims and theft of naval property in the court system, contesting the looting of the USS Cumberland and CSS Florida wrecks, and the recovery of the alleged bell of CSS Alabama (Cooper, 1994:134). The successful prosecution of two individuals for looting the sites of USS Cumberland and CSS Florida led to the first time that responsible citizens who reported the perpetrators received monetary awards from the fines collected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (Boyd 1995, Smith 1993). In the case pertaining to CSS AlabamaU.S. v Richard Steinmetz (763 F. Supp. 1293, 1294 [D.N.J. 119]; aff’d, 973 F.2nd 212, [3d Cir. 1992] cert. denied, 113 S. Ct. 1578 [1993]), the court applied the doctrine of sovereign immunity to property formerly owned by the Government of the Confederacy and held that the United States government rightfully succeeded it (Neyland 1996:98). Accordingly, in the eyes of the court, historic shipwrecks of the Confederacy were to be treated in the same manner as those of the Union.[1]The unauthorized salvage of a TBF torpedo bomber allegedly from the infamous Flight 19 highlighted that the issue of ownership also extended to aircraft of the United States Government (Cooper 1994:134). They too remained the property of the United States unless formally abandoned, transferred or sold – they too merited protection and active management.

The NHC was one of the first federal organizations to adopt a proactive stance in the management of historic submerged aviation sites. David J. Cooper, who served as the NHC’s first underwater archaeologist between April 1993 and April 1994, on loan from his position as State Underwater Archaeologist for Wisconsin, set an admirable tone (Pull Together 1993:15). In a few short decades, Cooper argued, aviation facilitated transportation, communication, exploration, global trade, and played an instrumental role in geopolitics and conflict. Though originally mass-produced, aircraft were maintained, used, marked, personalized, and ultimately became associated with individual narratives—and they needed to be recognized and preserved (Cooper 1994:137–8).

At the time the U.S. Navy received frequent requests to sell, trade, or loan historic or obsolete aircraft and aircraft wrecks for the purposes of restoration for static museum display or flight. Such requests came alongside the more concerning instances of theft of aircraft components or entire aircraft through unauthorized salvage operations. The fact that some aviation museums undertook large scale salvage operations of submerged historic aircraft themselves, either for restoration or trade with other museums, without embracing cultural heritage management concerns helped foster a public perception encouraging salvage recoveries (Cooper 1994:13–-6, Neyland 2002:773). In fact, the NHC’s determination to preserve naval aircraft was tested in December 1993 when Quonset Air Museum disregarded the requirement to obtain the Center’s permission prior to the recovery of a Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat. The museum ignored the Navy’s request for recovery, conservation, and restoration plans. A legal case ensued, following on the heels of an associated investigation launched by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (Neyland 2002:770–71).

Within this backdrop, Cooper and the Naval Historical Center began advocating for the development of a sub-discipline in aviation archaeology that would help turn the tide towards preservation and research (Cooper 1994:139). In cooperation with the NPS, the NHC aided in the development of a National Register of Historic Places bulletin titled “Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Aircraft Properties” (Milbrooke et al. 1998). The effort was aimed at establishing widely accepted criteria that would enable such aircraft to be assessed for their historic significance and integrity, and intended to provide federal agencies with guidance in managing aviation resources (Cooper 1994:134, Neyland 2002:774).

Through a joint effort with the Defense Legacy Resource Management Program, the NPS National Maritime Initiative, and the NCSHPO, the NHC undertook the development of a management plan for the Navy’s historic naval aircraft and aircraft wreck sites (Neyland 2002:767, Whipple 1995:10–12). Enlisting David Whipple as Aviation Cultural Resources Coordinator, the NHC began advocating for the management of aircraft crash sites, potentially eligible for the National Register, to be surveyed as archaeological resources, pursuing data associated with the cause of the crash, operational modifications, or other aspects that would make a site eligible for nomination to the Register (Whipple 1995:10–12). By the middle of the decade, aircraft had made it to the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks programs (Cooper 1994:134).

Establishing the framework for the management of historic aviation resources was not Cooper’s sole priority. During his one-year tenure, the NHC undertook an investigation of USS Cumberland and CSS Florida, supported the nomination of USS Massachusetts as a State of Florida shipwreck preserve, met with the NPS and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in regards to the management of USS Tecumseh, and also coordinated with the latter on the investigation and partial excavation of Union gunboat USS Eastport (Cooper 1993:11). The Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory began treatment of artifacts at NHC. At the same time, Cooper was charged with reviewing federal laws for the preservation of naval cultural resources, analyzing the NHC’s needs and required capabilities for artifact conservation, and developing policies and long-term plans for submerged cultural resources at large (Pull Together 1993:15). A comprehensive inventory of wreck sites owned or managed by the Navy was underway in order to support the determination of significance, accessibility, prioritization, and study of those resources. In furtherance of this inventory, the NHC enlisted the help of Hallie Booker in 1993, supported by the NCSHPO and the NPS National Maritime Initiative (Pull Together 1994:9). By 1994, the management plan for historic U.S. Navy ship and aircraft wrecks was well under development, outlining administrative procedures for their preservation and encouraging a professional approach to the study and conservation of associated artifacts (Pull Together 1994:8). Dr. Robert Neyland was brought on board in May 1994, on loan from Texas A&M University, to succeed David Cooper as the center’s Underwater Archaeologist, in the process reaffirming the Navy’s long-term commitment to submerged cultural resources (Pull Together 1994:14).

Within a year of Neyland’s arrival, the number of underwater surveys and excavations that had been completed on CSS Alabama had risen to seven (Neyland 1995:11). The eight artifacts taken without authorization from the site of USS Hatteras by USS Hatteras, Inc., had been returned to NHC and were on their way to the Corpus Christi Museum; the vessel itself had been unsuccessfully nominated as a National Historic Landmark in collaboration with the Texas Historical Commission (Neyland 1995:12). Partnerships were underway with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum to survey the War of 1812 gunboat Allen, with the University of Maine to survey for American Revolutionary War vessels lost in Penobscot Bay, and with the Navy’s own Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two to evaluate the site of the World War I era cruiser San Diego (Neyland 1995:12–13).

The Navy was once more called upon to assert its ownership rights through the court system when the Judge Advocate General and the Justice Department, at the request of NHC and the National Museum of Naval Aviation, interceded in the case of a Douglas TBD-1 Devastator bomber discovered off Miami, Florida. This was the only known extant example of this type at the time, and the particular TBD-1 Devastator was a veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea before being sent back to the United States to serve as a training aircraft. In this instance, a salvor had purchased the coordinates for the site and recovered the aircraft canopy in order to file an admiralty salvage claim. The Navy found itself in the position of asserting title to the aircraft at the same time the salvor was attempting to sell it to the Navy (Neyland 1995:12). Such cases did not always go in favor of the Navy’s position, including a 1984 decision regarding a specific Curtiss Helldiver in Lake Washington (United States of America v. Jeffrey Kenneth Hummel and Matthew W. Mc Cauley, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington at Seattle, Case No. C84-1058C) and the case of a Douglas Dauntless SBD aircraft from Lake Michigan (United States of America v. Theophanis, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Indiana at Hammond, Case No. 2:95-cr-77) that was dismissed on a technicality (Neyland 2002:770–72). On the whole, however, the Navy was making inroads in reaffirming government ownership of naval aircraft, as exemplified by a 1996 decision regarding a U.S. Navy Wildcat in Lake Washington (Historic Aircraft Preservation, Inc. vs. One Wrecked and Abandoned F4F-4 Wildcat Fighter Airplane, in rem, and United State of America (U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington at Seattle, Civil No. C95-0795Z). The outcome of this particular case and others like it may have prompted the introduction of proposed legislation that would have forced the formal abandonment of U.S. Navy aircraft lost prior to November 19, 1961.[2The Navy, led by the NHC, successfully denounced the proposal as a self-serving attempt by certain private interests that would encourage the disturbance of war graves, foster commercial exploitation of sites, deplete a finite resource, and harm the public’s interest in historic aircraft (Neyland 2002:772–73).

The H.L. Hunley and Coming of Age

In 1996, the Navy formalized Neyland’s role at the NHC through the creation of the first civilian position dedicated to underwater archaeology, concurrently establishing the NHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch. By this time the fledgling program had completed two more expeditions to investigate the Civil War site of USS Tulip alongside the Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program, surveyed and excavated two War of 1812 vessels (USS Allen and a British prize, the brig HMS Linnet), supported in the investigation of a Spanish or French colonial vessel in Boca Chica Channel, Florida, and turned its attention to USS Alligatorone of five 12-gun schooners built to stop slavers and pirates in the first quarter of the 19th century. Alligator’s first voyage off the coast of Africa led to the establishment of a colony of former slaves that later became the state of Liberia. The remains of the ship believed to be Alligator were nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, though the archaeological investigation of the site proved inconclusive (Neyland and Voulgaris 2003; Voulgaris 1996:12-13). In support of the NHC’s stewardship responsibility towards the treatment of recovered material culture, the Legacy Resource Management Program funded the 1996 publication of “Basic Methods of Conserving Underwater Archaeological Material Culture,” authored by Dr. Donny Hamilton of Texas A&M University. The branch was making inroads and establishing itself as a federal cultural heritage management program. It was the discovery of H.L. Hunley in 1996, however, that had a transformative effect on the standing of the NHC in the federal heritage management community.

On May 3, 1995, a team under the direction of novelist Clive Cussler discovered the wreck of Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which was lost following its sinking of USS Housatonic in February 1864. The submarine was decades ahead of its time in terms of naval engineering and the first to sink an enemy vessel in combat (USS Housatonic). As its site rested outside of state waters, the responsibility to protect it fell upon the federal government (Neyland and Brown 2016:1). A federal oversight committee made up of the NPS, the NOAA, the General Services Administration, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the U.S. Navy determined in 1996 that the preferred management option was to recover the submarine (Voulgaris 1996:12–13). Prior to doing so, the sites of both H.L. Hunley and USS Housatonic were assessed, respectively in 1996 and 1999, through a partnership between the NHC, the NPS, and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. The site assessments, documenting both sides of the encounter, exemplified a novel research approach – that of studying an underwater naval battlefield (Conlin 1999, 2005; Murphy 1998). The Navy then took the lead. Neyland was temporarily assigned to the state of South Carolina from 1998 to 2004 to oversee the recovery operation of H.L. Hunley, which took place in August of 2000, and the excavation of its interior that ensued. The multi-million dollar project brought together a number of federal and state agencies, private sector companies, non-profit organizations, as well as numerous U.S. Navy commands, leading to broader recognition of the NHC’s role in managing submerged heritage sites (Neyland and Brown 2016:xxi–xxiii; Schneller 2001).  

By the end of 1990s, Neyland was putting forth a thesis that naval sites necessitated their own research questions and methodology, distinct from other wreck sites. In the case of the U.S. Navy, naval sites were often associated with detailed historical records, an account of cognitive decision-making by individuals, the involvement of naval and military strategy, and an analysis of the projection of political power. Their artifact assemblages related to life aboard, new technologies, and arms (Neyland 1998:14, Neyland 2002:777–78). The branch would aim to lay the foundation for this discrete approach to research as it entered the new millennium. First, however, the program had to complete the naval shipwreck inventory, and in the process establish new partnerships with states for the assessment and management of sites distributed around the country and the globe. Inventory, assessment, and management served as the basis upon which future research priorities were determined (Neyland 1998: 17–18).

Establishing National and International Policy Pertaining to Sunken Military Vessels

Adopting a systematic approach to the research and management of submerged naval vessels and aircraft correlated with a renewed emphasis on policy. As the NHC was attempting to move beyond projects of opportunity to priority-driven ones, there was also a desire to move away from setting policy based on the specific nuances of individual court cases that involved naval sites. The first expression of an overarching declaration came in the form of a jointly issued statement by governments of France, Germany, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States in September 1995. It expressed a preference for in situ preservation and provided guidance for issues related to sunken state vessels and aircraft (DoS 1995; Neyland 1996:99). Concurrently, the NHC observed early on that the preferred in situ preservation management was not absolute. While recognizing that archaeological excavation is a destructive process, provisions were made for instances where historical, architectural, or archaeological significance merited site disturbance (Dudley 1993:3, 9). By 2000, the NHC had codified its approach to sanctioning research on historic U.S. naval vessels and aircraft through the publication in the Federal Register of proposed and final guidelines for archeological research permit applications (Federal Register 1999, 2000).

The following year, President William J. Clinton issued a Presidential Statement on “United States Policy for the Protection of Sunken State Craft” (USGPO 2001), further raising the profile of preservation efforts. In it, President Clinton stipulated that:

“The unauthorized disturbance or recovery of these sunken State craft and any remains of their crews and passengers is a growing concern both within the United States and internationally. In addition to deserving treatment as gravesites, these sunken State craft may contain objects of a sensitive national security, archaeological, or historical nature. They often also contain unexploded ordnance that could pose a danger to human health and the marine environment if disturbed, or other substances, including fuel oil and other hazardous liquids, that likewise pose a serious threat to human health and the marine environment if released.” (USGPO 2001:195)

Accordingly, President Clinton continued, the United States would use its authority to protect and preserve sunken state craft of the United States and other nations within the territorial waters of the United States, foreign nations, or on the high seas (USGPO 2001:196). The Presidential Statement was reiterated in a 2004 Public Notice issued by the Department of State’s Office of Ocean Affairs, wherein the governments of France, Japan, the Russian Federation, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States stated or reaffirmed their earlier positions (DoS 2004). Concurrently, the NHC was spearheading the development of national legislation that would codify the expressed position of the United States government.

The Sunken Military Craft Act

In October 2004, Congress enacted the Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005. Division A, Title XIV of that bill was Public Law 108-375, 10 U.S.C. 113 Note and 118 Stat. 2094-2098, commonly referred to as the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA). Representing the culmination of years of effort, the statute codified customary international admiralty law by stating that right, title, and interest of the United States in its sunken military craft may only be extinguished through express divestiture, and not the passage of time. Defining the categories of naval vessels, aircraft, and spacecraft that were considered sunken military craft, the statute also prohibited the disturbance, removal, or injury of such craft, including their associated artifacts, without authorization. For the first time, violators faced significant fines such as penalties of up to $100,000 per day of violation, potential confiscation of the vessel used in a violation, and liability for damages. Furthermore, the Secretary of the Navy was authorized to establish a permitting program for those wishing to conduct intrusive research on U.S. Navy sunken military craft for archaeological, historical, or educational purposes.[3Finally, for the purposes of encouraging international reciprocity when it came to the respectful treatment of sunken military craft, those craft of foreign nations located within the waters of the United States (up to 24 nm from shore) enjoyed the protections of the SMCA. At the same time, foreign nations were permitted to request that the Secretary of the Navy incorporate their vessels into the Department’s permitting program.

The passage of the Sunken Military Craft Act proved to be a pivotal moment for the NHC’s management of U.S. Navy ship and aircraft wrecks. All sunken military craft were now protected, irrespective of when they sank; the number of court cases asserting rights over Navy sunken vessels and their associated artifacts dissipated; and, the prospect of enforcement actions appears to have contributed to the decrease in the unauthorized disturbance of sites, at least within the United States.

Ebbs and Flows

While substantial progress was being made on the policy front, the Underwater Archaeology Branch continued, if not accelerated, its research-oriented efforts, and established its own archaeological field investigation capabilities (Neyland 2002:767). Between 1999 and 2001, its staff conducted limited test excavations and site assessments on material remains associated with the Penobscot Expedition of 1779. In addition to a site consisting primarily of projectiles and ordnance, from which a small cast-iron swivel gun was recovered, the NHC investigated the potential remains of the Continental brig Diligentone of only three Continental Navy vessels to participate in the failed expedition (Hunter 2004:2-3). Concurrently, during the summers of 1998 to 2001, a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency team led by NOAA recovered the propeller, skeg, steam engine, and hundreds of artifacts from the site of Monitor, culminating in the 2002 recovery of the vessel’s turret. The shipwreck, located in 1973 by a team of scientists led by Duke University Marine Laboratory, was now the focal point of the nation’s first National Marine Sanctuary, and under a long-term management plan (USS Monitor Center 2018).

The following year, NHC archaeologists completed a three-year remote sensing survey aimed at locating and documenting U.S. Navy vessels sunk off the coast of Normandy, France, during the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. The project team employed a marine magnetometer, a side scan sonar, and a remotely-operated vehicle, while it also pioneered the use of a multi-beam echo-sounder with support from private companies Reson and Fugro, and the University of New Hampshire. Post-war salvage operations, combined with contemporary efforts to reclaim lost supplies and munitions, to clear channels, and to remove foundering vessels, meant that few of the located sites were found to maintain a high degree of integrity. However, the effort highlighted the benefit of a holistic approach to researching the Navy’s past bringing together archaeological, historical, and oral history methodologies (Atcheson et al. 2015; Schmidt 2003).

Then, around 2004, the Underwater Archaeology Branch entered a period of declining resources as Legacy Resource Management Program funds were redirected elsewhere. Though continuing to pursue its mission—such as through a 2005 survey of the site of USS Cumberland and a 2006 collaborative investigation of a Douglas TBD-1 Devastator in the Marshall Islands—dedicated program funding for the branch became scarce (Calhoun, Schmidt, and Taylor 2007; TIGHAR 2006). Staff numbers, which had held steady for a series of years, dwindled as a result of the associated drop in funding and attrition. For a period of months in 2008 the program was once more sustained by just one full-time civilian employee. The branch rebounded, however, in both staff and funding, and by the end of its second decade became involved in some of the largest projects in its history. These included the excavation of a War of 1812 gunboat associated with the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla in partnership with the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland State Highway Administration, and the oversight of the full recoveries of Civil War shipwrecks USS Westfield and CSS Georgia, undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Borgens et al: 2015, Krueger et al 2015, Savannah District 2018). Meanwhile, the Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory, having overseen or completed the conservation of hundreds of artifacts dating from the Revolutionary War through to World War II, and housing material from more than forty sites, launched an artifact loan program that encompassed thousands of artifacts. The NHC as a whole was growing concurrently, having accumulated responsibility for the management of the Navy’s museums nationwide and been reestablished as the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

On the 25th Anniversary of the Underwater Archaeology Branch

As the underwater archaeology program at NHHC marks the 25th year of its existence, it finds itself positioned among the leading federal agencies responsible for the management of submerged cultural resources. Its various activities have coalesced around four primary functions—managing the U.S. Navy’s sunken and terrestrial military craft, conducting archaeological research on such sites, maintaining a conservation and curation capability to care for associated artifacts, and engaging in educational outreach initiatives.

Over the last few years, the NHHC has overhauled its inventory of sunken military craft, which now accounts for nearly 3,000 shipwrecks and more than 15,000 aircraft wrecks (Bleichner and Marlowe 2019; Stokes, Bleichner and Massey 2015). Building on the 55 archaeological research permits issued under the previous permitting program, the NHHC established a revised permitting program implementing the Sunken Military Craft Act through the publication of proposed and final rules in the Federal Register (2014; 2015). Among other things, the revised permit application now requires a conservation plan to accompany any request to recover artifacts (NHHC 2018b). The branch has continued its research agenda by leading or collaborating in surveys of sites such as ConestogaHoustonMacon, and San Diego (Catsambis 2014; Catsambis and Martin 2018; Delgado and Schwemmer 2016; Lickliter-Mundon et al 2016). It has also conducted artifact recoveries, such as two guns from the suspected site of Revenge, which has been the focus of multi-year remote sensing investigations, and spearheaded the return of timbers associated with the Revolutionary War-era gunboat Royal Savage, which is in the process of being virtually reconstructed (NHHC 2015a; NHHC 2015b; Schwarz 2012; Schwarz 2017; Schwarz 2021). Elsewhere, the program is supporting Naval Air Station Patuxent River in an assessment of experimental aircraft in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, and partnering with external researchers in recent deep-water discoveries such as the wreck site of USS Indianapolis (NHHC 2017, Schwarz et al 2018). The associated project reports are epitomized by the 2016 publication associated with the recovery operations of H.L. Hunley (Neyland and Brown 2016). Meanwhile, the Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory, which is undergoing an expansive renovation, has overseen the treatment of thousands of artifacts, some of exceptional historical value, such as an 1899 Howell torpedo, and expanded its collection to nearly 30,000, a significant portion of which are on loan to museums and other host institutions (NHHC 2018a). In terms of outreach efforts, a successful academic internship program established in 2009 now counts more than 120 alumni, several of the branch’s field research projects have been featured in documentaries, and the branch’s overall digital presence has benefited greatly from a new NHHC website launched in 2013.

Alongside all of this success, the challenges facing the program are also expanding. Old threats to sunken military craft persist, while new ones have come to the fore, such as the illegal scrapping of warships in East Asia (Holmes, Ulmanu and Roberts 2017). Twentieth-century sites continue to corrode, risking the release of environmental hazards, and invasive species, such as the quagga and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, pose a concern to the integrity of submerged heritage sites (Binnie et al. 2010). The advent of highly capable and more widely accessible remote sensing technologies means that more craft continue to be discovered in previously inaccessible locations, making them increasingly susceptible to human disturbance. As the information age continues to shift old management paradigms, increasing multidisciplinary collaborations and raising public awareness of the importance of preserving sunken military craft will form an increasingly vital function of NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch in the future.

—Alexis Catsambis, Ph.D., NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch



[1] Unless expressly transferred to the U.S. Navy, sunken Confederate vessels are currently managed by the General Services Administration, a responsibility the agency inherited from the Treasury Department on June 2, 1965 through 40 U.S.C. 310 (Neyland 1996:98). The Secretary of the Treasury had been charged by a Joint Resolution of Congress on June 21, 1870 to collect “any moneys, dues and other interests lately in the possession of or due to the so-called Confederate States, or their agents, and now belonging to the United States”, which has been interpreted to include government property such as sunken Confederate naval vessels (Forty-first Congress, Session II. Res. 75. 1870). The doctrine of succession was further reinforced by the 1872 United States Supreme Court decision, United States, Lyon, et al. v. Huckabee (83 U.S. 414 1872), in which the court ruled that property purchased and owned by the Confederacy passed to the conqueror, the United States (Neyland 2002: 768). The principle was applied to shipwrecks of the Confederacy in Leathers v. Salvor Wrecking etc., Co. (15 Fed. Cas. 116, No. 8164 1875:116), which pertained to the wreckage of the steamboat Natchez (Neyland 2002:768).

[2] The basis for the proposed legislative action appears to have been a comparable proclamation by the United States Air Force that it formally considers abandoned aircraft that crashed and remained wholly or partially unrecovered by November 19, 1961 – a day when a fire destroyed pertinent archival records (Air Force 2016:179; Neyland 2002:774).

[3] The SMCA also authorized the Secretaries of the other military departments, and the Secretary of the Department in which the Coast Guard is operating, to establish permitting programs for disturbance of sunken military craft under their respective cognizance, though none have to date.




Atcheson, Blair, Robert Neyland and Alexis Catsambis

2015    Retour en Normandie: Prospections archéologiques de L’ U.S. Navy sur la flotte immergée de l’Opération Neptune. Revue d’ Histoire Maritime 21:85-124. Presses de l’université Paris-Sorbonne.

Binnie, Nancy, Jonathan Moore and Darren Keyes

2010    “Impacts on Submerged Archaeological Sites”. In Monitoring and Control of Macrofouling Mollusks in Fresh Water Systems, edited by Gerald L. Mackie and Renata Claudi, pp. 270-74, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Bleichner, Barry and Elizabeth Marlowe

2019    Sunken Military Craft Aircraft Database Phase 1: Research of Aircraft Losses and Type/Model Database Completion. On file, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

Borgens, Amy, Justin Parkoff, Robert Gearhart, Sara Laurence, Doug Jones and Jessica Stika.

2015    Volume 1 Report: Investigation and Recovery of USS Westfield (Site 41GV151) Galveston Bay, Galveston County, Texas. Prepared by Atkins North America, Inc. for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On file, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

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2014    USS Houston 2014 DIVEX: Field Report. Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

Catsambis, Alexis and Chris Martin

2018    USS San Diego 2017 Survey: Field Report. Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

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Delgado, James P. and Robert V. Schwemmer

2016    Archaeological Survey and Identification of USS Conestoga (AT 54) off Southeast Farallon Island, Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Meritage Heritage Assessment Expedition September 2014–October 2015. Maritime Heritage Program, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Washington DC.

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1991a  American Naval Archaeology: Past and Prologue. Pull Together 30(1):1–5.

1991b  CSS Alabama: The Evolution of a Policy. In Underwater Archaeology Proceedings from the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference, edited by John D. Broadwater, pp. 47–50. The Society for Historical Archaeology, Richmond, VA.

1993    The Historical Significance of Naval Archaeology. Paper presented at Historia Marítima y Naval Iberoamericana, Universidad Marítima de Chile, Viña del Mar, Chile.

1995    Submerged Cultural Resources in Peril: A Naval Perspective. In Underwater Archaeology Proceedings from the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference, edited by P. F. Johnston, pp. 111–14. The Society for Historical Archaeology, Washington DC.

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Federal Register

1999 “Application Guidelines for Underwater Archeological Research Permits on Submerged Cultural Resources Under the Jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy.” 64 Federal Register 223 (November 19, 1999), pp. 63263–66.

2000    “Application Guidelines for Archeological Research Permits on Ship and Aircraft Wrecks under the Jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy.” 65 Federal Register 95 (May 16, 2000), pp. 31079–83.

2014    “Guidelines for Permitting Archaeological Investigations and Other Activities Directed at Sunken Military Craft and Terrestrial Military Craft Under the Jurisdiction of  the Department of the Navy.” 79 Federal Register 3 (January 6, 2014), pp. 620–31.

2015    “Guidelines for Permitting Archaeological Investigations and Other Activities Directed at Sunken Military Craft and Terrestrial Military Craft Under the Jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy.” 80 Federal Register 168 (August 31, 2015), pp. 52588–603.

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2017    The world’s biggest grave robbery: Asia’s disappearing WWII shipwrecks. Guardian, November 2, 2017. Accessed on March 28, 2018.

Hunter, James W.        

2004    Unearthing a Forgotten Naval Defeat. Pull Together 43(1):2–3.

Krueger, Bradley, Heather Brown, George Schwarz, Alexis Catsambis, and Blair Atcheson.

2015    Archaeological Survey and Site Investigation of 18PR226, A War of 1812 Shipwreck in the Patuxent River, Prince George’s County, Maryland. Project Number SP314A41. Prepared for the Maryland State Highway Administration. On file, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

Legacy Resource Management Program

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Lickliter-Mundon, Megan, Michael L. Brennan, Clara Smart, Bruce G. Terrell, Robert V. Schwemmer, and Alexis Catsambis

2016    High-Resolution Imaging and Characterization of the USS Macon Airship Wreck Site. In “New Frontiers in Ocean Exploration: The E/V Nautilus and NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer 2015 Field Season.” Oceanography 29(1) Supplement, 84 pp.

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1998    Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Aviation Properties [PDF]. National Register Bulletin. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

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1998    (Editor) H.L. Hunley Site Assessment [PDF]. Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, National Park Service, Santa Fe, NM.

Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC)

2011    Advancing Naval History and Heritage: The Strategic Plan for the United States Navy History and Heritage Command 2011–2016. Washington DC.

2015a  NHHC Participates in Archaeological Survey of Suspected USS Revenge Site. Accessed on April 2, 2018.

2015b  Remains of Revolutionary War Schooner Presented to Navy. Accessed on April 2, 2018.

2017    Researchers Announce Wreckage from USS Indianapolis Located. Story Number NNS170819-02. Accessed on March 28, 2018.

2018a  Howell Torpedo No.24. Accessed on March 28, 2018.

2018b  Permitting Policy and Cultural Resource Management. Accessed on April 2, 2018.

Neyland, Robert S.    

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1995    Underwater Archaeology Program. Pull Together 34(1):11–13.

1996    Sovereign Immunity and the Management of United States Naval Shipwrecks. Underwater Archaeology 1996 [PDF], edited by Stephen R. James Jr. and Camille Stanley, pp. 98–104. Society for Historical Archaeology.

1998.   The Archaeology of Navies: Establishing a Theoretical Approach and Setting of Goals. Underwater Archaeology 1998 [PDF], edited by Lawrence Babits, Catherine Fach, and Ryan Harris, pp. 14–19. Society for Historical Archaeology.

2002    Preserving and Interpreting the Archaeology of the United States Navy. In International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology, edited by Carol V. Ruppé and Janet F. Barstad, pp. 765–81. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.

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2016    H.L. Hunley Recovery Operations. Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington DC.

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2003    The Boca Chica Channel Wreck: A Site Assessment [PDF]. Naval Historical Center Underwater Archaeology Branch, Washington Navy Yard, DC.

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           1992    C.S.S. Alabama Update. 31(1):11–12.

           1993    Underwater Archaeologist Joins Center Staff. 32(1):15.

           1994    Protecting Submerged Cultural Resources. 33(1):8-9, 13–14.

Roach, J. Ashley

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Savannah District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

2018    Raising History: Raising the CSS Georgia. Accessed on March 27, 2018. 

Schmidt, James S.      

2003    Underwater Archaeologists Complete Normandy Survey. Pull Together 42(1):2–5.

Schneller, Robert J.

2001    Hunley Central Compartment Excavated. Pull Together 40(1):8–9.

2002    USS Monitor Turret Recovered. Pull Together 41(2):2–6.

Schwarz, George

2012    Archaeological Remote-Sensing Survey for the Remains of the Suspected United States Navy Schooner Revenge: Preliminary Investigation. On file, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

2017    NHHC Recovers Cannon from Possible Revenge Wreck Site. In The Sextant. Accessed on April 2, 2018.

2021    Perry’s Revenge – A Continued Look at the Wreck of an Early 19th-Century Naval Schooner off the Coast of Rhode Island. In The Sextant. Accessed on June 21, 2021.

Schwarz, George, Agustin Ortiz and Silas Dean

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1993    2 To Plead Guilty to Relic Theft: Civil War-era Ships Heavily Damaged. In Daily Press, 31 July. Newport News. Accessed on April 4, 2018.

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The USS Monitor Center

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Published: Mon Dec 27 10:48:36 EST 2021