January 2


Archeology Underwater

By Leslie ONeill

January 2, 2010

Archeology Underwater, Dr. Spence, E Lee Spence, shipwreck, sunken treasure, underwater archeology

Dr E. Lee Spence located his first shipwreck at the age of twelve; tales of pirate adventures inspired him to hunt for sunken treasure.

Dr E Lee Spence

Dr. Spence’s archeology underwater has been funded by institutions such as, the Savannah Ships of the Sea Museum, the Caribbean Research Institute Ltd., Colombia, South America, the College of Charleston, the South Carolina Committee for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He recently received an honorarium from National Geographic for work he did on their atlas of the oceans.  Dr. Spence is currently the president of the Sea Research Society and the vice president of the International Diving Institute.”

Spence served as Chief of Underwater Archaeology for Providencia, a 40,000 square mile archipelago in the Western Caribbean.

He has authored more than a dozen books, and has served as an editor for a number of nationally distributed magazines. He is also an award winning cartographer and has published a number of maps and charts dealing with shipwrecks and treasure.

Spence has traveled to a wide range of exotic places in the Far East, Europe, Central and South America. He explored castles, palaces, shipwrecks, ancient ruins, secret tunnels, and subterranean and underwater caves. He has dived in the Great Lakes, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. He has been shot at, buried by cave-ins, tangled in fishing nets, pinned under wreckage, run out of air and lost inside wrecks.


Dr. Spence has discovered numerous historically significant shipwrecks, including the Civil War blockade runner, Georgiana and the Confederate submarine Hunley, a mystery for over one hundred years. In 1978, the Hunley was placed on the United States National Register of Historic Places as a result of Spence’s discovery. The wreck was raised in 2000. Her crew was still inside.

The State of South Carolina’s claim of ownership to the Civil War submarine Hunley rested in part of Spence’s 1970 discovery of that vessel and his subsequent gift of his salvage rights to the State. Spence’s gift of his rights was made in September of 1995 at the official request of the Attorney General of South Carolina and the South Carolina Hunley Commission.

Inboard profile and plan drawings, after sketches by
W.A. Alexander (1863)  H. L. Hunley, suspended from a crane during its recovery from Charleston Harbor, August 8, 2000. Photograph from the U.S. Naval Historical Center.

Spence considers his identification of Charleston born banking and shipping magnate George Trenholm as the “Real Rhett Butler” to be the most interesting non-shipwreck discovery. Trenholm’s fleet of fast steamers earned today’s equivalent of over one billion dollars running munitions, medicines, and merchandise through the Federal blockade. By the end of the Civil War, Trenholm was a major figure in the Confederate government. The United States actually charged Trenholm with treason and claimed he had made off with and concealed hundreds of millions in Confederate assets. Trenholm died without revealing his secrets. Spence is currently trying to uncover them.

Dr. Spence’s work has been written up in hundreds of periodicals including: Life; Skin Diver; People; Treasure; Civil War Times; New York Times; USA Today; the London Sun; Vi Menn (Norway); La Stampa (Italy); Heutzu (Germany); MacCleans (Canada); and Tresors de l’histoire (France). He has also been on numerous radio and television shows, both here and abroad, including NBC’s Today Show.

“El Encanto Treasure” tumbaga gold, pre-Columbian death mask, with ornate headdress, breast plate, etc. These pieces were found near El Canto Colombia in 1938, brought into the U.S. in 1974, and were purchased from Miguel Hoyos in 2009, Dr. Spence hopes to return them to Colombia. The green is from the copper used in alloying the gold.

Lee’s collection of masks & figures, pre-Columbian style art and artifacts.

Lee with skull and pre-Colombian tumbaga gold death mask.

Coins from Spanish shipwreck sank in 1800 near Ecuador.

One wreck contained over 10,000 clay smoking pipes.

Bronze mortar, most likely utilized to make gunpowder, dated 1586

One of a dozen portholes recovered from wreck of a civil war era (1860s) side wheel steamer, had run aground and burned. Found north of Fort Pierce Inlet, Florida.

Assorted bottles 18th and early19th century. Square bottles were used for medicines. The bottle shown in the center is a style known as a “Dutch Gin Bottle.” Gin was first sold as a medicine, thus the square shape of most gin bottles even today. The left of the shells was a snuff bottle. The wide mouth jars behind were for non-liquid medicines. Several bottles have seals denoting the owner and/or the date.

Pre-Colombian jars and effigies

The small bronze cannon on right was recovered from a 1786 French wreck in Haiti. It would have been loaded with stone and used as a swivel mounted shotgun.

The middle cannon, believed to be Spanish from a wreck found in the Philippines. At some point in its history Chinese characters were inscribed near the touch hole, possibly captured and used by Chinese pirates before it sank.

The cannon on the left also Spanish, from the Philippines.

This German World War II era sextant is marked with the emblem and swastika of the third Reich.

Spanish silver goblet made in the “new world” by Native American craftsmen

Taino Indian bowl found by North Caribbean Research divers (directed by Lee Spence) near Monte Christi, Dominican Republic in 2008.

As a historian, Spence believes the biggest key to success on any expedition is the archival research that precedes it. Spence calls historical research “his drug of choice” and says, “In today’s world, time is the most expensive part of a salvage expedition. Man-hours spent in the archives can cut hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of time from the field phase of most projects.
All pictures, except those of the Hunley, are copyrighted by Lee and Lauren Spence and are being used with their  permission.
• Shipwrecks of Hilton Head & Vicinity chart by Lee Spence, (Shipwreck Press, Sullivan’s Island, S.C., 1980) OCLC: 15281285
• Shipwrecks of Wreck Valley : [New York City and Long Island regions] chart by E. Lee Spence (Shipwreck Press, Sullivan’s Island, SC, 1990) OCLC: 40228884
• Shipwrecks of the Civil War : Charleston, South Carolina, 1861-1865 map by E. Lee Spence, (Shipwreck Press, Sullivan’s Island, S.C., 1984) OCLC: 11214217
• Spence’s Chart of Shipwrecks of Charleston, S.C.: over 250 wrecks map by E. Lee Spence (Shipwreck Press, Sullivan’s Island, S.C., 1980) OCLC: 40228884
• Gold Bug: Treasure Chart, Edgar A. Poe by E. Lee Spence, (Sullivan’s Island, SC: E. Lee Spence, 1981) OCLC: 49829303
• South Carolina Shipwrecks, 1520-1776 by E. Lee Spence (Charleston, S.C. : E. Lee Spence, 1976) OCLC: 6270298


Leslie ONeill

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