Sen. Cam Ward
By Thomas Spencer - The Birmingham News
A battle over historic artifacts hidden below the surface of Alabama's rivers, lakes and bays is surfacing in advance of the opening of Legislature's 2012 regular session on Feb. 7.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has introduced a bill to amend the Alabama Cultural Resources Act, a law that requires underwater explorers to get a permit from the Alabama Historical Commission before going after submerged wrecks and relics.
In Ward's version, the law would still require permits for recovery of artifacts related to shipwrecks and would forbid disturbing Native American burial sites. But treasure hunters would otherwise be able to search state waters and keep what they find.
"The waters, just like the air, belong to the people," said Steve Phillips, an advocate for the changes to the law. Phillips, an owner of Southern Skin Divers Supply Company of Birmingham, is the only person to ever have been arrested under the Alabama Cultural Resources Act.
At trial, Phillips was found not guilty of felony theft of a cultural resource but was convicted of misdemeanor third-degree theft. The charge stemmed from Phillips' 2003 expedition in the Alabama River near Selma in search of Civil War relics, which ended with his arrest and the confiscation of a Civil War era rifle he'd found.
The incident sparked a still simmering conflict pitting Phillips and his fellow divers and collectors against the state Historical Commission and professional archaeologists who fear that removing the restrictions would lead to raids on underwater historic sites.
Aside from the protection of burial sites, there are no restrictions on the recovery of historic artifacts on private property, but artifacts on state-owned property -- whether on land or under water - should not be available for wanton scavenging, opponents of the changes say.
Teresa Paglione, president of the Alabama Archaeological Society, said without legal protections, artifacts from the Civil War, the settlement of the state, the age of European exploration and thousands of years of Native American history could be extracted, kept privately or sold, and lost to history.
Those artifacts in state waters belong to all the people of the state, Paglione said.