The Battle over History
Montgomery, Alabama – Walking through Southern Skin Divers Supply in Birmingham it is easy to see Steve Phillips is an unabashed fan of the civil war. In his shop Phillips has some relics from this conflict on display, everything from belt buckles to cannonballs.
He bought most of these items from dealers. But, there was the one time he found something through his other passion, scuba diving. One time while diving in the waters of the Alabama River near Selma, he says found an old musketoon on the river bed.
For the uninitiated, a musketoon is a short barreled version of the traditional musket dating from the Civil War. At the time, Phillips thought he had hit the jackpot. But soon it was clear, the jackpot had hit him.
"The police arrested me," he said.
Phillips had run afoul of what's called the Alabama Cultural Resources Act. It makes all artifacts found submerged in the State's waterways property of the government. Phillips has a unique history with this law.
"There's only one diver ever been to trial over the Cultural Resources Act. And you're looking at him, it was me. That was in 2003 through 2006 under the underwater cultural resources act and I was found not guilty of a felony."
Phillips' close call did attract the attention of state lawmakers. Senator Cam Ward is championing a bill the Senate may consider in the final hours of this year's legislative session."What this bill does, it clarifies it and says that if it is a shipwreck, a marked spot, one that has been designated by the historical commission or a burial ground then that is a cultural resource. Otherwise it is not."
Across the street from the State House we met with Teresa Paglione at the state archives building. She is the president of the Alabama Archeological Society. State historians and archeologists do not like the proposed changes."We think that if collectors, and in some cases sellers are allowed to come to Alabama and basically dive in our rivers. They're going to be taking artifacts that belong to all of Alabama." She says their biggest concern is the loss of knowledge should the artifacts be removed. "They're taking them out of context so they're removed from the archeological site and the information that they represent is gone."
Paglione says one of the sites continually brought up by both sides is the Old Selma Armory. "Portions of which were pushed into the river by the Confederates because the Yankees were coming and they didn't want it to get into Yankee hands so all of that is still spilled out in the river, and it is still part of an intact site even though it is submerged." Civil war artifacts in good condition can fetch high prices among collectors. Type in the words civil war in the search window on Ebay, and items similar to those in Steve Phillips store pop up. A civil war era belt buckle can go for three hundred dollars. A Confederate cavalry sword is also available with an asking price of close to three thousand dollars.
Historians like Paglione are concerned that changes to the Cultural Resources Act will attract droves of drivers hunting Alabama artifacts. However, not everyone is convinced. "The average day to day diver is not going to go stick their hand down in the mud in zero visibility taking tremendous risk and bring up something he isn't even sure is there or not," says State house member Jim McClendon, who wrote the initial bill now in the Senate. Revising the cultural resources act is a battle he's fought before.
The plan has passed the house on numerous occasions, but getting it through the senate, which may or may not happen today has been the challenge. "It's not unusual for legislation especially if it has a pretty wide impact to take a while to get the kinks worked out and get everyone on board with it," he says. Both sides are dug in and awaiting the vote in the senate. Should the bill pass, Paglione says their next step will be to petition the governor. Representative McClendon says if it doesn't pass, the fight is far from over.
"It'll be back, you can count on that."