Underwater archaeology is as cool as it sounds, especially as described by Dr. Susan Langley, Maryland’s Underwater Archaeologist for the past 20 years. Dive in to Susan’s interview on this episode of PreserveCast:

[NICHOLAS REDDING] Welcome to Preservation Maryland’s PreserveCast. I’m your host Nick Redding. Water, water, everywhere. In history underneath. Underwater archaeology is an unusual, but valuable, field of study. Our guest this week, Dr. Susan Langley, is the Maryland State Underwater Archaeologist. Susan and I discuss some of the basics of underwater archaeology, including salvaging wrecked ships and the ins-and-outs of becoming an archaeological pirate. She also talked about Mallows Bay, home to the largest ghost fleet of the western hemisphere. Let’s dive in to PreserveCast.

[INTRO] From Preservation Maryland’s studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.

[NR] Dr. Susan Langley has been the Maryland State Underwater Archaeologist for more than 22 years, directing the Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program. The program falls under the Office of Preservation Services at the State Historic Preservation Office in Maryland, the Maryland Historical Trust. It’s there that she reviews applications for work in State and Federal waters, as well as excavations of shipwrecks and submerged archaeological sites. Susan is also an adjunct professor at several colleges and universities and lectures globally on a variety of subjects, including maritime archaeology, piracy, textile technology, foodways, and even the archaeology of beekeeping. Thanks for joining us today, Susan.


[SUSAN LANGLEY] Oh, thanks for inviting me.

[NR] So you have a pretty interesting background and a lot of varied interests. I know when I was looking at the bio there, the interest of archaeology of beekeeping is pretty out there. That’s pretty cool.

[SL] Yeah, I love it, and I’ve been a beekeeper about 10 years and I’ve had the pleasure – now, we have bipartisan bees. We have a hive at Government House [the home of the Governor of Maryland] and it was installed under Governor O’Malley, and Governor Hogan’s been happy enough to keep it there. And even when it stung his wife’s dog [laughter], but they’ve been very supportive.

[NR] That’s pretty neat. So tell us a little bit about how you got into underwater archaeology. How did this start? Was there a passion for underwater resources as a child, or where does it all begin?

[SL] Convergence of the planets, I think. My family always liked history. I grew up on the Great Lakes and I remember a National Geographic [magazine] from the early 60s, and the cover were these hands holding what looked like a vase to a child. Pottery. And there was this green cloud swirling out of it, and it had a flashlight on the wrist, and I was just enthralled. When I became an undergraduate, I asked about underwater archaeology and was told at the time there’s no such thing. And or it’d be really nice, but it’d be impossible. This coming from non-underwater people. An at the same time, in the summer, I had a bartending job. Two of the guys I was working with were Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary and they had a little dive program of their own, and so I just put it together. I learned to dive through them. I ended up, at the end of my undergrad, being offered a position with Parks Canada in Labrador working on the Red Bay Project, which is going down in the annals. It was an early Basque whaling station with accompanying shipwrecks. And so it was a phenomenal introduction, and a big skill set came with that.

[NR] Right. I would imagine. So that was up in Canada and in the Great Lakes area. When did you end up in Maryland? What brought you here?

[SL] I was doing my master’s in Calgary and Alberta and had finished that and started my doctorate, and halfway through received one of those strange, out of the blue phone calls that – “Do you want to teach in Thailand?” And you’re like, “Who is this really?” And I ended up going to Thailand for UNESCO for the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization for almost three years teaching underwater archaeology. Then I came back, finished my doctorate, and as I was finishing it, a colleague sent me the advertisement from Maryland and I said, “Oh, they’re never going to hire a foreigner. It’s too much trouble.” But I thought you can’t not apply for a job directly in your field. Too many people I knew had had to leave their disciplines, and I thought, “You’ve got to apply.” And I received an interview and I thought, well, that’s pretty good. I didn’t think I’d get that far. And ended up, I found out later, being second choice the initial person, who was a male and American, turned it down. So they can’t say they only hired me because I was female or that I was an evil foreigner taking a job. Second banana has its merits sometimes.


[NR] And so that’s kind of an issue ever since. You’ve been with the Maryland Historical Trust since then?

[SL] I have.

[NR] Wow, and so you oversee the underwater archaeology program. For someone who doesn’t, maybe they have a vague understanding of just archaeology in general, tell us a little bit about how does one do underwater archaeology? Is there digging like there would be in an archaeological site? How do you approach a project?

[SL] That’s interesting because, most of the time, we don’t do as much diving. A lot of people, as soon as they learn to dive, want to volunteer with us. We do a lot less diving than we do electronic remote sensing. Because a lot of our work is driven by compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. So we can check an area. We’re trying to survey the entire state over decades, so that we can give quicker answers when somebody wants to do something. Whether it’s an individual or an agency wanting to do something that could impact the waters. We love it if we can already tell them the answer that, yes, there’s nothing there, go ahead. So we do a lot of survey, which means – we call it mowing the lawn – we have an array of electronic equipment, side-scan sonar, magnetometer, which is sort of like a large metal detector. But these look like torpedoes that we tow.

[NR] So the State, Maryland Historical Trust, has it’s own boats, I guess?

[SL] Yeah, we have three. Our biggest one’s about 27 feet – 30 – if you count the dive platforms.

[NR] Do they have names?

[SL] We suppose it’s bad luck not to, so we informally call them, SeaMMAP, RiverMMAP, and CreekMMAP. So that being MMAP, Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program. And we are mapping. So we’ll do the remote sensing and try and help people avoid wrecks if we can, rather that undertake the cost of excavation, conservation. Very rarely, do we do excavation. But there are a number of tools for digging under water effectively. They are like vacuum cleaners that suck up sand. You don’t stick them into the ground, you fan the dirt into them so you don’t suck up artifacts. But the bay is quite shallow, so there are only certain areas we can even use that. Most of the time it would be a small induction dredge or something like that.

[NR] And what do you normally find? You said wrecks. Is that normally the resource that you’re most concerned about? When you talked about how a lot of this is driven by compliance, so these are some type of drudging project or a federal or a state project that’s going to impact state waters and so you’re going in to look for some type of archaeological – some type of historic or perhaps even prehistoric – resource? I mean, what is it that we, as Marylanders, are trying to protect underwater?

[SL] Well, for big dredging projects and things, they have to hire consultants. Because we mandate they have to do the survey. We can’t then go ahead and say, “Pay us to do it.”  Or I’d get a lot bigger budget. So we can’t do that but in our general survey work, or if there is another area where there’s a non-profit museum or something, if we can help them out it’s a small thing. By and large, it is wrecks, because they’re the most salient feature that can be vulnerable to looting, predation, souvenir hunting. Some of it’s not malicious, but people don’t realize you can’t do that. We do look at –

[NR] So is it illegal to hunt a wreck in Maryland waters?

[SL] You can go and dive on them all you want. You can survey, draw, bah,, bah, bah.

[NR] You can’t take.

[SL] Well, you’d have to find out whether it’s on the National Register [of Historic Places]. Whether it’s eligible. You might need a permit. There is, unfortunately, some legal collection permitted – five items – you can’t dig for them. You have to use jackhammers to remove them, things like that, but we’re also interested in areas where we have high erosion. We may have historic town sites or landings eroding in. Wharf structure. Prehistoric sites are of course a concern, but electronically, they don’t show up really.

[NR] Right, because there’s no metals associated with them.

[SL] No, we might find them, and I have found them in rivers in Florida just diving because it’s clearer. We don’t have that visibility. It’s like archaeology by Braille. But you might find through a dugout canoe or using a magnetometer. If there were a hearth, that would cause the minerals in the soil to realign and it might show up. But we have such heavy buildup of sediment just normally that it’s –  if we found one I’d be surprised. It’d be more likely it would turn up incidentally to other survey. Or if there’s a very large site on land, it could easily carry out into the water, and we have found that.

[NR] So when it comes to wrecks – I mean, there’s obviously a lot of people who are just fascinated by shipwrecks. Two questions about that; I mean, what is the magnitude of them? How many do we have in Maryland state waters? And then also, along with that, what ages do they range from? I mean, how far back do shipwrecks go that we’re aware of in Maryland waters?

[SL] Start with the last question first.

[NR] Sure.

[SL] Ones we’re aware of. There are some that we know of probably from the late 18th century. Maybe the last quarter of it, very few. Anything earlier than that, not yet. There was a promising ballast pile down near St. Mary’s City that a graduate student from – he’s from St. Mary’s College, but he was doing his degree in Britain – was looking at. Unfortunately, no artifacts to corroborate a potentially early age. So for sure we’re getting —

[NR] That could have been 17th century, perhaps?

[SL] Yeah, it could have been. It could have been.

[NR] Wow.

[SL] But with no artifacts really in situ, a few things get caught up in the ballast stones, but you need more than that. So nothing definitive there yet. So late 18th century is probably our best bet at this point. They do come right up to obviously modern times, but we have to look at — in fact, one of the most important ones that’s recent was 1955.


[NR] I was going to ask, how recent do these come about? ’55. I mean, we probably don’t have a lot of major shipwrecks in the [Chesapeake] Bay anymore, but…

[SL] There’s some. There’s some important ones and we know where they are and we don’t send people there, although a few people have come to us with them sometimes. Sort of collectors of old, who are sort of getting past doing that anymore, and now sort of fessing up where they know things are, but. For example, Levin J. Marvel is this – not a great deal of it left. It went down in August 1955, it was just the 60th anniversary of its loss last year with more than half of the lives on it lost, yet the survivors made it to a duck blind they were so close to shore. It was in Hurricane Connie. The importance of it really was that the Bonner Act – the National Boating Safety Act – was in progress at the time, but that was really the straw that rammed it through, that boats had to meet certain standards to carry passengers.

[NR] Okay, so it was sort of the catalyst for a piece of legislation.

[SL] A very important piece.

[NR] And is that site on the National Register now?

[SL] It’s in there. Peter in our office, our National Register person has it and –

[NR] So it’s moving through the process.

[SL] Yeah, it’s moving through because so those people didn’t die in vain. They’ve saved thousands of lives since by that legislation going through as a result of that.

[NR] It seems like a good example there of the role that archaeology and then the National Register can play in not only recognizing important sites but sort of, in this case, like you say, memorializing – so that these people didn’t die in vain. There’s a recognition of the role that they played in a broader story and legislation and things like that.

[SL] There were several large – we had an event in North Beach to commemorate the 60th [anniversary of the shipwreck], there were five speakers and some music and musicians and they had some artifacts and things that people had collected because when it [the ship] broke up folks all along Herring Bay picked things up, and we had the meeting to say, “Those of you who’s parents picked these up back in the day, please when you don’t want them anymore don’t just throw them out. If you’re not sure, let one of the local museums know.”

We were expecting a handful of people, we had over 400 people showed up for it. And a lot of them were either – some of them actually were old enough to remember this, some were children and remembered it. And we had the son of the Captain came up from Florida. And it was a very emotive time and a good commemoration.

[NR] So now, have you done terrestrial archaeology as well? Have you done that in your career? Just sort of on the dry land?

[SL] Yeah. You have to start. You walk before you run.

[NR] Right.

[SL] Most universities won’t even offer maritime until you’ve – it’s offered as a graduate program. So the fact that St. Mary’s College of Maryland has me teach an Intro every two years, I will say the students who came out of that course, who wanted to go into maritime, all got into the institution of their choice. Most of them with money.

[NR] Wow.

[SL] Because they had a leg up on everyone else, just going into it.

[NR] Sure, I was going to ask because it seems like the public’s view and interest is really peaked when it comes to maritime, perhaps even versus what’s going on the dryland. It just sort of seems like there’s sort of this cachet associated with maritime underwater archaeology. It’s very, very exciting.

[SL] I think that goes back to pirates, and treasure, and all those things that you grow up with.

[NR] So you’re sort of like an archaeologist-pirate in a sense?

[SL] Would I teach the pirating? Never. I’m the sheriff. I’ve got the white hat.

People are interested. And I think the media, the last decade with such resurgence of National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, we don’t always concur with how they present it, you know? There’s always has to be that element of drama to sell it while most of us – while we’re sitting out in the boat – when we’re filthy and the engines down and you’re grubby – and we looked at each other and go, “Isn’t this a glamorous job?”


[NR] Yeah, so let’s talk a little bit about – we were talking before the interview about – it’s a great project – and you were saying it’s really sort of exceptional and unique in the way that you’ve been able to approach it – and it’s one along the lines of getting a lot of media attention – has received almost international attention – is Mallows Bay in Maryland state waters. And for those people who are listening that aren’t from Maryland, why don’t you tell us a little bit about where Mallows Bay is and what the resource there is?

[SL] Sure, and I have to say that I’ve been fascinated with it since I came to Maryland. The person who’s written the most about it, if anyone is really interested, is Donald Shomette who’s a noted Maryland maritime historian, and he’s written a book called “Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake.” He wrote it in ’96, I believe, and he’s talking now about updating it because research doesn’t end.

Thirty miles south of Washington, DC, in Charles County, Maryland, is a small, half-mile wide embayment with nearly a hundred World War I-era ships in it, and yeah, I’ve been talking for years about trying to make it a preserve or do something with it, trying to work out something with DNR Natural Resources [Maryland Department of Natural Resources] because that department maintains the bottom land, and these vessels have become an integral part of the environment, but Maryland Historical Trust is tasked with the management of the vessels, so it had to be cooperative, and this has sort of been going on and on.

Recently, now NOAA re-instituted, well, reinvented, really – it’s not the same program, but they’re National Marine Sanctuary Program. We were in the forefront 20 years ago, and then they stopped nominating them for a while, nearly 20 years. And we’re angling really hard with Wisconsin – we’re raising to be the 15th Sanctuary.

But the vessels were built in 1918, 1919. It was determined in 1917 that they needed to build – and this is a civilian endevour, it’s not military – they needed to build vessels to carry supplies overseas, just support transports, even to the Allies, to the citizens who are being impacted, not necessarily war materials or anything like that. And they determined to build a thousand of them in about 18 months, which is phenomenal. It would have been about two million tons of blue water shipping. And if you think, between 1899 and 1915, I’m stealing Dawn’s data here, American Blue Water Shipping only totaled completely about 500,000 tons. So they were going to quadruple it in 18 months. So this was a phenomenal proposal.

They ended up contracting for 730, something like that, vessels at 60 different ship yards from the Northeast, the Northwest, California, Southeast, a little bit on the Gulf, the Great Lakes was part of a different project, it was building metal hauls but for the same US Shipping Board Emergency Fleet, it was called.

[NR] So these are all wooden hauled chips.

[SL] The ones out here are. They are sort of the equivalent of say Liberty ships, World War II Liberty ships, but these were World War I wooden steamships. They were built to nine different designs. They ended up only completing – I think at the end of the day there was under-completion, but fewer than 300 because no one expected the war to end in 1918 when it did. So they still had several on the racks. None of them made it to Europe that year. Some of them got out on the water, and they found out they had issues with – the wood was green and things like that. So they had construction issues.

[NR] So did any of them actually – any of these ships in Mallows Bay ever convey, ship, transport between the two?

[SL] No, some of them did make it to Europe, but it was after the War ended. And some of them made it over more than once, but a handful. And a handful of them were sold into private service when they – at the end of the War when they had these vessels, they decided to try to sell them off. And it took three bids to get anyone to take them, really. And the third one, they bought the entire fleet, which was probably 230 vessels at that point. There’s still 20 hulls in Texas in a river; there’s some in the James River; there’s some up in Curtis Bay. Those were the ones that were sold into private service, and when they were done hauling wood and —

[NR] They just sunk them.

[SL] — fertilizer, they just sank them in Curtis Bay. The vessels are between – they’re under 300 feet, say 240 to 270 feet long. So, they’re not small. They cost three quarters of a million to a million dollars to build each. They sold what was left of the entire fleet for the cost of one vessel to a salvage company out of Alexandria.

And it brought them up, tied them up off Whitewater, Virginia. And the problem was they kept breaking loose, catching fire. And when they broke loose, it became a hazard to navigation. It was the Marines at Quantico who went chasing after them. And you can imagine that got old pretty quickly.

So they said something to the company, you’ve gotta do something. So they shoved them into Mallows Bay and built pilings along the front and taking them a few at a time to Alexandria to break them down at that point. Then the company was not doing that well. It would go under and then sort of rise again like a phoenix. It was a little bit shady.

By the time of the Depression, the company went under completely. It tried to come back and claim the vessels again, but a court said “No.” Some of the former employees and many of the local residents actually start salvaging the vessels, sort of Mom-and-Pop wildcat salvage. It’s the heart of the Depression. You’re in a rural and economically poor area. The salvage of these vessels provided something like 15% of the per capita income for Charles county during the Depression.

[NR] So today they’re all there still, in sort of behind these pilings in Mallows Bay.

[SL] Well, not quite!

[NR] Not quite?

[SL] There’s a gaggle of them still near Whitewater. We thought nine, we now think 12. The Institute for Maritime History non-profit has been out surveying. And they said they think there’s up as many as 12, and there are two or three more escapees downriver.

[NR] Oh, really?

[SL] Yes, and so they go a bit farther than that. But the majority, the majority are in Mellows. Yes.

[NR] And what role has the State’s underwater archaeological program, played in surveying and helping move this towards maritime sanctuary status.

[SL] It’s a partnership kinda deal. When NOAA reinvented the Sanctuary program, they said, “Rather than show up–” and I’m not dissing anybody, but Park Service and Bureau of Land Management kind of show up and say, “Here’s your park.” And then people who haven’t been consulted or are upset about this, and they spend five years mollifying people or assuaging them of their fears. And NOAA did that in the past, and they said, “This is new. It has to come from the community. They have to want it.”

We have over 135 community partners, who all said they want it. We’ve had no negative feedback, by and large. We’ve had perfectly valid concerns and questions asked. So, it was a partnership between the community, Maryland Historical Trust, Department of Natural Resources, because we’re not going to raise any of these vessels or put preservative on them. So as we go forward, they’ve integrated themselves to the environment. So it’s going to be a lot more natural focus on them, but we do want to continue to survey these vessels. A lot of them haven’t been completely surveyed yet, some have.

There are other vessels in and around the area that are not World War I related, but in Mallows and near there, they have Civil War affiliation, potentially Revolutionary War affiliation, just work boats. There was a fishery and caviar cannery right near Mallows Bay. So there’s a lot of other – and there’s wharves. There are a lot of resources beyond the ships.

[NR] So if someone would like to learn more about it, obviously, they can read the book that you offered, and we’ll provide a link to that with this show download, but is there a way to actually get out on the water and see it safely and not damage any of the resources, but is there a way that they can get out and actually see this area?

[SL] There is. You’re welcome. There’s a park nearby, it’s run by the county [Charles County], and the county, of course, is a partner very much in this.

[NR] So you can put in a kayak there?

[SL] You can put in a kayak. You can put in a small bass boat. In fact, the bass fishing is phenomenal, catfish, too. Please eat the invasives! Snakeheads, catfish. Come and eat them! There’s great birdwatching. They’ve put in a telescope up in the park that you can look out on the vessels you can see. Most of them are around the corner of a promontory. So you would have to go kayak out to them.

[NR] So it’s better to kind of get out on the water, kayak, but it is an interesting place to go…

[SL] Fascinating.

[NR] Marylanders can go there.

[SL] Absolutely.

[NR] We’re recording this right now in December, probably not this time of the year best time to go out and see it, a little chilly in the water, but maybe next –

[SL] And not safe unless you’re wearing a wet suit. So we worry about cold water.

[NR] Right, but the spring might be a nice time to get out and see it.

[SL] Every season offers something, if it’s the birds coming back or the flowers blooming – there’s a lot of blooming plants in there. There’s a burning basin in the back, which was put in during the second World War by Bethlehem Steel, that kind of took it over and thought they’d do the salvage on site rather than haul. About 12 vessels, they said, “It’s not worth it.”

[NR] It’s just too much work.

[SL] But that’s a nice calm area if you’re a beginner kayaker, to go in there and just look around as well, and there’s some vessels in there. There’s sort of the litter mentality. If somebody leaves a piece of litter, it’s okay for you to drop one. Well, these vessels were here, so a number of other vessels have been sort of sneaked in through time and kind of left there as well. Most recently as recent as 1972 or 3.

[NR] Wow.

[SL] Yeah. And the Accomac, it’s a big metal hull. You’ll see it – like the sentinel, the mouth of the Bay. How does someone sneak a 300-foot long metal hull in there? Nobody knows, it just appeared [laughter].

[NR] They always do it at night, I guess. As we wrap to conclusion here, we normally as folks what their favorite historical building in Maryland is. But having an archaeologist with us, I suppose the question probably should be if you had a favorite site that you’ve been a part of either surveying or doing a dive on. If you had to pick one in Maryland, what would it be?

[SL] Wow. It is a good question. I worked on a lot of great sites but it actually is Mallows Bay. I’ve wanted to see something happen there since the moment I laid eyes on it. And so this is really fortuitous that we can, as the sanctuary moves forward, trade on NOAA’s expertise, and the fact that they can shine a global spotlight on this. And that’s phenomenal. We do have to have a good management plan in place because we have to guard it against loving it to death.

[NR] Right, which we’ve seen a lot of national parks and, I mean, sometimes people love things too hard [laughter].

[SL] We’ve seen an increased visitation with just a nomination process.

[NR] Right, there’s been a lot of publicity about it…

[SL] Exactly

[NR] …which is a double-edged sword.

[SL] And we do want people to see it and visit it but we’re going to have to be able to manage it so that people realize that we’re trying to add no new regulations. So you can still fish, you’ll just need a fishing license. You don’t need two. You just need one from the State. You can still birdwatch. You can still you can visit the wrecks but you cannot vandalize, climb on, steal things —

[NR] Go home with a piece of it.


Support the Sanctuary: The comment period for designating Mallows Bay a National Martine Sactuary is on-going and the public in invited to make comments on the proposal by March 31, 2017. Find our more.

[SL] Yeah, no. You’re still not allowed to squash rare or threatened endangered species or harm or harass them, I mean all the rules that are in place now. The only new one we’d look at maybe is drones because that’s a new technology that didn’t exist and with a lot of our DOD partners, Quantico nearby, they don’t necessarily want them in the area so we’re probably going to follow whatever the federal or state guidelines are for that but we’re trying very hard not to institute any new rules. We want people to still go and fish and birdwatch and kayak.

[NR] Right, but I think it gives the listeners a sense from your perspective having been with the Maryland Historical Trust for quite some time that this project obviously is pretty special. If you single that out as something that you see as perhaps one of the most interesting things or your favorite thing that you’ve worked on in a very long and pretty rewarding career so it gives people a sense – if people don’t know about Mallows Bay or haven’t seen it, they should definitely –

[SL] Google it!

[NR] Google it and read more up on it. There’s a lot out there on it and it is pretty fascinating. As we were saying the spring or summer could be a wonderful time to go out and take a kayak trip around Mallows Bay.

[SL] It’s the largest ghost fleet in the Western Hemisphere and the ones in the Eastern Hemisphere are modern ship ranking ones in the Indian Ocean so historically you won’t see anything else like this anywhere.

[NR] Well, that’s a wonderful way to conclude this. Susan, thank you for joining us today and thank you on behalf of all Marylanders for your long career in protecting the places and sites that matter to our state.

[SL] Oh, it’s my pleasure, thanks.