Archaeologists have been digging up pottery, stone tools and other artifacts in Georgia for years, but until recently there was no coordinated effort to locate the historic treasures submerged along the coast and in rivers and streams.
Georgia has joined at least eight other states, including Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, in launching a state-funded underwater archaeology program.
As the state's first official underwater archaeologist, Jason Burns is organizing a network of divers and historians to identify the state's submerged relics, including 2,000 shipwrecks.
"When you think of underwater archaeology, it's not just shipwrecks," Burns said. "We're interested in everything from submerged prehistoric sites to docks, piers and wharves."
Before moving to Georgia, Burns helped with the recovery of the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley from the harbor in Charleston, S.C., and helped study the Confederate sloop CSS Alabama, sunk by a Union warship near Cherbourg, France, in 1864.
From a helicopter, he has already spotted the outline of a sunken vessel in the Flint River near Albany. It was one of many ships that navigated the river's treacherous shoals and bends during the 1800s, when waterways were the major routes for passengers and supplies were pouring into what was then the American frontier.
Burns is working with Albany's Thronateeska Heritage Museum, which traces the history of southwest Georgia, to locate and identify more submerged sites.
Tommy Gregors, the museum's executive director, has documented at least 14 ships on the Flint, including several paddle-wheelers that were built at a local shipyard.
"This is a story that has really not been explored as much as it should have," Gregors said. "With the coming of trains, people forgot about the ship traffic up and down the Flint."
The West Georgia Underwater Archaeological Society, another group that Burns is working with, has been studying submerged bridges and steamships in West Point, located on the Chattahoochee River north of Columbus. The divers have located the supports for a covered bridge built in 1838 by Horace King, a former slave who became one of the South's leading covered-bridge builders.
"There's a lot under the waterways of Georgia that we've lost and don't know about," said Charles Kelly, the society's president. "This is a good opportunity to protect things that are there."
Bob O'Daniels, an underwater bridge inspector for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said divers and historians in northwest Georgia are forming a group to study submerged artifacts, including a steamboat in the Coosa River near Rome. They will also search for relics beneath the Etowah and the Oostanaula rivers.
Such cities as Albany, Rome, Augusta and Columbus may seem landlocked in this age of interstate highways and over-the-road trucks, but in the 1800s they were heavily dependent on paddle-wheelers. Some even had shipyards.
Hawkinsville and Abbeville, southeast of Macon, were shipbuilding centers on the Ocmulgee River, and at one time 40 steamboats plied the Coosa River from Greensport, Ala., to Rome, Burns said.
Other states have had active underwater archaeology programs for years, but until last year Georgia had no system for locating and preserving submerged relics.
Although Georgia has a relatively short coastline of around 100 miles in length, it "matches up in terms of importance" with other southern states, said Ervan G. Garrison, a University of Georgia archaeology and geology professor.
"We've got some really fine shipwrecks and coastal habitation sites that go back into prehistory," he said. "We've got stuff in the rivers. We've got more than enough to keep someone busy for a long time."
Garrison has helped with the recovery of guns and other items from the CSS Georgia, which sits in pieces at the bottom of the Savannah harbor. He has located submerged tools left by hunters about 10,000 years ago, when Georgia's coast extended about 13 miles farther east. He has helped excavate a prehistoric American Indian site on Skidaway Island, some of it under water.
Organic materials, such as wood, bone and fur, tend to deteriorate on land, Garrison said.
"But if you're very lucky in underwater archaeology, the mud silt and clay will preserve bone," he said. "You'll get the perishable materials. That fills in a lot of blanks."
Burns, who works for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Division, said one of his goals is to raise awareness of the state's maritime history.
"Once you know about it, you can protect it," he said.