By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
For years a bullet, buckle, arrowhead or any old item found in an Alabama waterway way was considered property of the State of Alabama. The Historical Commission so jealously guard any artifact that picking a arrowhead out of a stream could land a young boy or girl in jail.
Due to an over-zealous interpretation of the law, historical memorabilia has rotted and vanished in the muddy waters of the state.
Rep. Dr. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) has fought to see the law amended, today he passed another milestone as HB54 also known as the Underwater Cultural Resources Act, received a favorable report from the Senate Committee.
The bill was vigorously challenged by the Alabama Historical Commission, a state department created by the State’s Legislature. In the agency’s view, any artifact found in an Alabama waterway is the sole property of the state.
Alabama native, Steve Phillips, a professional diver and author of many books on historical artifacts said he was pleased with the Senate’s findings. Phillips is the only person every arrested and tried under the Historical Commission’s interpretation of the law. Phillips was not found guilt of the offense but was nevertheless, charged and had to defend himself at considerable expense and inconvenience. At the Senate hearing Frank White, executive director of Historical Commission asked, “The question that I have as Executive Director of Historical Commission is what is wrong with the law as it is now? If a diver wants to dive, they come and get a permit from us. They go dive, they find whatever, they bring it up. We will look at it and make a judgement decision about what is historically significant for the state of Alabama and whether it ought to remain with the state, then the diver can take the remaining finds with them.”
Mr. White’s assertion that, “…The diver can take the remaining finds with them,” has not proven to be the case. Even though not convicted the Historical Commission has yet to return Phillip’s property.
During the hearing Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Daphne), asked Director White, “ What about the idea of historical doesn’t have anything to do with the value. So, you could find something that had value that didn’t have historical significance and it would still go to the diver, correct, under the current law?” White answered, “Correct.”
Rep. McClendon later stated that divers have turned over artifacts to the Historical Commission and have found that those items they trusted to the commission were sold and shipped to museums out of state.
Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) asked White, “From the state point of view or archeologists that work for you…sites that are underwater, what projects does the state have going on now to recover these? Are there any active ones except the one in Mobile Bay? Other than that, There is no state-sponsored recovery of these historical artifacts.”
White responded that he was correct.
McClendon as said on numerous occasions, “The current law is confusing and has caused much consternation among those people who wish to retrieve those artifacts that no one else is going after. The Historical Commission, over the years, has done little to explore, retrieve or preserve these artifacts. Unless these [private citizen divers] people are allowed to do this, the artifacts will stay in the mud and continue to deteriorate and be lost to future generations of Alabamians.”
Two amendments where added to the bill. One provides that no such artifacts are recovered by the process of mechanical and/or hydraulic dredging. The other amendment came from Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford (D-Russellville) stating, [It] shall be a Class A misdemeanor to violate the provisions of this law. This would be equivalent to a speeding ticket, according to Bedford.