THE SOCIOLOGY
OF A SHIPWRECK PROJECT
By James J. Miller PhD.
State Archaeologist and Chief Bureau of Archaeological Research

    A thing as large and complicated as the Maple Leaf can be viewed from many angles. Each view gives a different picture, and no view represents the whole. I have chosen to look at the Maple Leaf as a contemporary event in a modern sociological context. Besides being a shipwreck site of extreme Importance, a vast repository of well preserved artifacts, a tangible reminder of a tragic war, the Maple Leaf is also the center of a complex of modern actions and thoughts that will determine her future.

A Growing Controversy.
    For three decades the State of Florida has been at the center of a growing controversy over the use of historic shipwreck sites that are owned by the public. Florida waters contain, by far, the largest number of colonial ship wrecks of any state in the nation. The east and south coasts of Florida border major shipping routes of the First Spanish Period. Spanish fleets transporting the vast wealth of the New World to the treasuries of the Old World coasted Florida shores, and a little was lost along the way. Florida has a reputation for treasure; so much so that few people realize that only a very small proportion of shipwrecks actually contain any valuable material, let alone gold or silver. Consequently, many people fail to recognize shipwrecks as important cultural resources.

    Thus, it was with all the more concern that I listened to Keith Holland's first phone call in August 1984. He had formed a company - St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. (SJAEI: pronounced SAH JEE); and was informing the State of Florida that he intended to find the Maple Leaf. The vessel was said to lie at the bottom of the St. Johns River, was said to contain tons of Civil War period artifacts, and might well belong to the State of Florida, at least according to State Statutes. It was a difficult time to embark on such a project, and presented the possibility of a legal, political, and practical nightmare.

A Protracted Admiralty Suit.
    Just a year earlier, the Florida Secretary of State had settled a protracted admiralty law suit in Federal Court with treasure hunter Mel Fisher and Cobb Coin Company, Inc. Federal courts were now successfully asserting jurisdiction under admiralty law over shipwreck sites that were within state-owned waters, even though, by state law, they belonged to the state. With this precedent set, admiralty arrests of shipwrecks in state waters began to appear in Federal District Courts with increasing regularity. The state's ability to manage historic shipwreck sites was being rapidly eroded by each successive court decision.

    Over the next year Keith Holland and I spoke frequently. We explored the legal status of the Maple Leaf in relation to state and federal law; we discussed the implications of actually finding the wreck; we discussed appropriate and inappropriate methods of excavation and recovery; we speculated about the state of preservation of the artifacts and what conservation methods might be necessary; and we learned as much as we could about each other's views concerning what should happen to the Maple Leaf. I believed that within ten years, if the right decisions were made, the huge archaeological and historical potential of the Maple Leaf could be realized; the project could be accomplished by proper archaeological and historical methods; no artifacts would need to be sold to fund the work; and the public benefit would be enormous. I also believed that if the wrong decisions were made, the Maple Leaf would become a unique opportunity lost, another disappointing chapter in our failure to manage our public resources wisely.

Little Legal Precedent.
    It is important to understand the context of these conversations six years ago. First of all, there was little legal or practical precedent in Florida to do anything on a historic shipwreck site other than conduct commercial treasure salvage. Second, the intensity of the national debate regarding commercial access to historic shipwreck sites was increasing, and the Maple Leaf had the potential to become a focus of either conflict or agreement. As the Admiralty Court precedents established in South Florida in 1983 found their way to other districts and circuits, archaeologists and preservationists across the nation began to work toward a Federal law that would exempt historic shipwreck sites from the provisions of admiralty law. This effort eventually culminated in passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. Third, in Florida there had never been a significant expenditure of public funds on a shipwreck archaeology project. For decades, the Legislature, the Cabinet, and the commercial salvors had agreed that this was appropriately a private sector activity -  that "the state should not be in the business of treasure hunting." The frequency of this argument in letters, editorials, legislative hearings, and Cabinet deliberations over the years reflects the depth of the public opinion that shipwrecks have only one purpose.

    Even before the Maple Leaf was actually located, it was recognized as a critically important wreck. From a legal point of view, no one knew the exact status of the vessel. Was the Maple Leaf federal property, having been in wartime service? Was the ship now state property, having been abandoned? If an arrest were filed in a Federal Admiralty Court, would the Maple Leaf become the property of the finder?

    From an archaeological point of view, the Maple Leaf could well represent the largest assemblage of Civil War military and personal material in the nation. It was conceivable that the items might be very well preserved in the anaerobic moods at the bottom of the St. Johns River. From the viewpoint of the conservator, the Maple Leaf cargo represented an unprecedented challenge in quantity and variety of material that might be recovered. Finally, in a public context, the Maple Leaf would eventually be recognized as a shipwreck of national significance, if its archaeological and historical potential were as great as expected. Whether the Maple Leaf would be treated responsibly or would be destroyed would largely depend on decisions to be made by SJAEI, the Federal Court, Federal agencies, and the State of Florida.

    Keith Holland had approached the Maple Leaf with a driving interest in history, a desire to discover something important, and with no experience in either underwater archaeology or commercial salvage. The development of some structure and direction for the Maple Leaf over the long term became an initial priority. In my view, the following components were necessary from the start:

    Six years later, I think it is now finally safe to say that the correct decisions have been made to form a sound foundation for the future of the Maple Leaf:

A Significant Event.
    The filing of the federal admiralty claim was a significant event in the development of the Maple Leaf Project. Although the location of the Maple Leaf had been confirmed, its ownership was still unclear. Chapter 267 of the Florida Statutes states that objects having historical or archaeological value which have been abandoned on state-owned lands belong to the state with title vested in the Florida Division of Historical Resources. It was clear that the Maple Leaf was on state-owned lands, but not clear that it had been abandoned. At the time of sinking, the Maple Leaf was in government service; and such vessels are, in general, never formally abandoned by the federal government. However, she was a private vessel under contract, rather than federally owned, so actual ownership was clouded. It was clear, however, that the U.S. District Court was the appropriate forum for the question to be decided. Unless an admiralty claim were filed by SJAEI, the site was available to be claimed by any other salvor. When the case was filed, the State made no appearance. The U.S. Departments of Justice and Army argued that the vessel remained government property, even though several contracts had been let in the 19th century for its removal as a hazard to navigation; and the plaintiff argued that the court should grant title and salvage rights to SJAEI as against all other parties. In an out-of-court settlement agreement, the parties disagreed on the principles of ownership, but agreed that salvage under certain conditions would be allowed and that the federal government would receive a share of the artifacts. In addition, the State of Florida, should it enter into a contract to provide technical assistance to the project, would be entitled to receive half the federal government's share.

Recovery of Artifacts.
    With the legal status more or less resolved, attention turned to the vessel itself. The first recoveries of artifacts, obtained by cutting a hole in the deck planking, revealed a stunning array of artifacts in an astonishing state of preservation. All those involved realized that the Maple Leaf was a conservation project even more than it was an archaeological project. Herb Bump of the State's Research and Conservation Laboratory began to work closely with project personnel to assess conservation needs and to advise on establishing a laboratory in Jacksonville that would treat the Maple Leaf material. The initial assemblage of artifacts recovered in only a few days of diving would eventually require several years of treatment before conservation was completed. With new knowledge of the contents of the Maple Leaf, and with the results of the documentary research that Holland and his associates had been conducting over the years, we knew that the Maple Leaf was indeed a site of national significance. Now it was necessary to convince the community of underwater archaeologists in the United States that the Maple Leaf was a vitally important shipwreck. It needed to be known that even though the project was being conducted by a private corporation under Federal Court jurisdiction, it was not commercial salvage; and public funding was essential for the project to be successful. The support and assistance of professional underwater archaeologists would be necessary. From my own perspective, this was the keystone to the responsible treatment of a nationally significant resource; without the understanding and support of professional underwater archaeologists, the project would fail and the site would be ripe for commercial salvage.

Searching for Professionals.
    The search for qualified underwater archaeologists to join the project began. It was a challenge to find compatible professionals who would be acceptable to the State and share the same enthusiasm and sincerity for the project that the SJAEI members have.

    The professionals were assessing the situation in the context of whether it was a treasure hunt or an archaeological and historical project. Furthermore, at this time, there were no funds identified to carry out excavation, conservation, analysis, reporting or public interpretation. Holland and others had spent personal funds on the project and many people had donated their professional service. It was clear, however, that putting together a Maple Leaf Project with strong public benefit would take a significant commitment of outside money.

    The strategy was developed to let the Maple Leaf speak for itself If the shipwreck was recognized to be as significant as we thought, and if the project was understood to be for public rather than private gain, we believed that the necessary support would be forthcoming. If these two conditions were not met, no amount of persuasion would be sufficient to build a lasting project. Although efforts to search for federal funds were unproductive, it appeared possible that state funding could be made available through the Department of State historic preservation grant program.

    Such funds are more frequently available for historic buildings than for archaeology projects. No funds had ever been awarded for work on an underwater site, but informal discussions with grant program staff were not discouraging. In 1989, SJAEI and the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville prepared a proposal to fund conservation of the Maple Leaf artifacts, as well as to plan for additional research; but the application received a low ranking by the Historic Preservation Advisory Council. The next year, after a successful effort to educate the council members as to the importance of the project, the application was approved and funds were authorized by the Legislature.

A Household Word.
    The project continued to grow slowly but surely, and its successes built upon each other. An effective public relations program led by SJAEI made Maple Leaf a household word in the Jacksonville area and spread the story throughout the Southeast. Public funding demonstrated to many archaeologists that the State of Florida was prepared to support the project and lent a certain legitimacy. After many discussions, William Still and Gordon Watts of the Program in Maritime History at East Carolina University agreed to take on the project as a major research and training commitment. With this arrangement concluded, the major pieces of the project's foundation were in place. The federal government, more comfortable with the nature of the project than at the time of the admiralty settlement, also agreed to make an initial funding commitment for artifact conservation, and began to consider options for public interpretation of the material. A half-hour video on the Maple Leaf has been produced by the Duval County School Board, and the Museum of Science and History opened its Maple Leaf exhibit several years ago. There have been additional state grants and the next several years of archaeological and conservation work at the Maple Leaf by qualified and experienced professionals seems assured.

    There are a great number of ways that the responsible management of a unique resource like the Maple Leaf can go wrong, and a very small number of ways that it can be correctly accomplished. The quality of the Maple Leaf Project has depended on the leadership of St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc., and the strong support of skilled people in many areas of expertise who they have been able to convince to join them in this endeavor. Seven years after my first phone conversation with Keith Holland, it is gratifying to recount the successes. No underwater archaeological project in Florida has even come close to the Maple Leaf in representing a model for public and private sector cooperation, or for public benefit.

The Maple Leaf. Copyright 1993 by St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. Contact Keith Holland