[First of all, some disclosures are in order. I was not only involved with the investigation discussed in the book, but a number of other issues regarding the HMS Fowey, over 15 years, while working for the National Park Service's Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) in Tallahassee, Florida. George Fischer was my first boss while working at SEAC, and I credit him with not only inspiring me to pursue archaeology as a professional career, but also teaching me both to work cooperatively and speak independently ("Non illegitimi carborundum!"). Russ Skowronek was not only a mentor and inspiration on the requisite need for the application of proper anthropological rationale and archaeological methodology during both my undergraduate and graduate studies at Florida State University's Department of Anthropology, but I consider him a close friend and confidante as well. I am also mentioned in the book's dedication, acknowledgments, and elsewhere throughout the story. I am, in fact, intimate with the details. Having said this, I think it is still within my ability to objectively review the book as a dispassionate reader, and I will make every attempt to do so. Ergo...]
The authors make it clear in the Preface that this is not a site report, and that it is actually a behind-the-scenes story, including "the items that never make it into the scientific literature." For all that, however, there are included a large number of pertinent historic and cultural material data that never made it into the original site report and help to put the flesh on the bones of the particular shipwreck in question, the HMS Fowey. Among these are the court-martial proceedings and the background of the captain, Francis William Drake. For instance, the opening, although written as a semi-fictional account, with "faces slicked with perspiration, not due to the mild temperature but in fear of the outcome of the hearing," in the court-martial scene, plays well, even with the Marine guard slamming his Brown Bess musket onto the deck as the captain is called-to and admitted. This device allows the reader an introduction into the circumstances of the Fowey's history as part of the naval establishment of 1741, the construction of a standard fifth-rate vessel, and the events that led to its loss in 1748 off the Florida coast.
The real story begins with a little treatise on the early history and general trouble with treasure-hunting in post-World War II Florida and elsewhere, and accurately recounts the adventures and mishaps of those early independent and wooly raconteurs, often in their own words. This cautionary sermon leads to the hapless end of Gerald Klein, the guy who originally "found" (or heard about, and then `found') the wreck of the Fowey, and who was so angry at the Government for interfering in his own treasure-adventure that, after he lost his `salvage' rights, in a fit of pique, he printed the location of the wrecksite for everyone to see (after holding out this important information for almost two years) on the paper placemats of the restaurant wherein he was killed another two years later.
Following a brief career history of the plucky and audacious George R. Fischer, and how the legal maneuverings of the National Park Service were used to establish the true ownership of an historic shipwreck embedded on Federal Lands (much to the aforementioned dismay of Mr. Klein), the search begins for what came to be known as "The Fourth of July Wreck." This was because, after having been given a court order of ten days to find and identify the wreck as the one in question, the site was finally located on the eighth day of the survey, the 4th of July, 1980. It is here we are introduced to the convoluted bureaucracy of the National Park Service in general, and, in particular, the elite membership of the NPS Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (then proudly self-appointed and appropriately known as "SCRU"). The initial discovery inevitably leads to the question "Is this a Spanish wreck (as originally posited by Klein, possibly related to the treasure-laden 1733 flota, of which a number of wrecks in the vicinity have long been known and identified), or something different?" Originally identified as Spanish, further studies were obviously required to identify it conclusively.
This brings us to the real crux of the book, the "Testing and Evaluation of the Legare Anchorage Wreck" (as it is now referenced), sponsored by the National Park Service's Southeast Archeological Center, and supported by the Academic Diving Program (ADP) and Anthropology Department of Florida State University (FSU) during June-July of 1983. How could a diverse, dissimilar, and relatively inexperienced crew of undergraduate diving-scientist-wannabe students carry out a major submerged cultural resource investigation for the National Park Service during a simple six-week summer field school (which turned out to be more like four weeks, once one took into consideration the weather and logistics)? Only by the wits and will of the authors, Russ Skowronek and George R. Fischer, when assisted by the youth, skill, musculature, and enthusiasm of FSU/ADP and Anthropology students and Crew-chiefs Brewer and Wild ("Frick and Frack"), and the steady cool composure of Assistant Field Director Richard "Old Grog" Vernon and Dive Safety Officer "Iron Man" Mike Pomeroy.
Subsequent to that field school investigation now lie the details that will curdle the true material archaeologist's blood, and the aftermath that will set the cultural resource manager's heart afire. Having seen the 1983 investigative results (it's a British man-of-war of the mid-18th century, for God's sake), and listened to the recommendations for its preservation (cover it), the Park (Biscayne) decides on its own to lift another one of the cannons (a second, without notifying anyone), so as to have a "matching pair," and then forgets to monitor the site for years afterwards (yes, years). In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew, the Park is given over $100,000 in FEMA money for cultural preservation rehabilitation (ostensibly for the Fowey, originally estimated at $40K), which it hands over to SCRU (rather than SEAC or FSU/ADP, or SEAC/SCRU, or even SEAC/SCRU/FSU).
The result is a 1993 SCRU-sponsored uncovering of the site, supposed site investigation and documentation (which is never written up), dispersal and off-site burying of various artifacts and wreck components, and a `symposium' on proposed site-preservation methods which results in, well, a weekend in Key Largo, without any conclusive reports.
The site today remains relatively unprotected and certainly without any preservation methods (simple or otherwise) applied. It's an open question as to whether there are (or have ever been) any regular patrols or systematic monitoring observations taken on the site over time (if so, let's see the records). Recently, there was a proposal made that the site ought to be completely excavated (without any accompanying budget proposal) because the Park just didn't have the manpower to protect it. That's a curious way of saving it. Considering the costs of retrieval and conservation alone, a million dollars would be laughable. Luckily, the United Kingdom has now taken an interest in the site, and at present considers it safe after 250 years (if the National Park Service will guard it). The best proposal for conservation and protection so far has been that same one made in 1983, as a result of this documented investigation - cover it (w/ sandbags).
The book finishes with an overview of Underwater Archeology Legislation and Regulations, which will entice the novice but will undoubtedly have to be further referenced in more detail by the professional when dealing with any serious legal or legislative matters. The timeline of events listed in Appendix 2 is especially informative for putting events in the book, which sometimes skip about, in their proper perspective.
Recommended? Of course. It's a hearty tale, told clearly and with warmth, caution, humor, and even some good old science with a capital "S". Thank God the authors took it upon themselves to bring this story into the open. It's one of the earliest (and best) scientific shipwreck investigations carried out in the Americas, and the new breed of underwater archaeologists can learn to appreciate how it was carried out 25 years ago (before computers!). Sure there's politics, but then, tell us a story of archeology, shipwrecks, treasure hunters, and the Feds, where there isn't any.