Part of the mission of the Alabama Historical Commission is to protect and preserve Alabama’s heritage. Historic areas and artifacts underwater are important to us because they are part of the collective heritage that belongs to all Alabamians.
No permit is required from the AHC to dive, look, photograph, and enjoy diving in Alabama’s waters. Permits are required for systematic study to identify cultural resources, to remove, or to excavate cultural resources.
A special group of resources called “cultural resources” are protected under Alabama law. Some examples of cultural resources are shipwrecks, American Indian sites, or sites where military battles took place. In order to be considered a protected cultural resource, a site must meet all three of the following criteria: on submerged land belonging to the state; eligible for or listed in the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage or the National Register of Historic Places; and unclaimed for more than 50 years. This law is only concerned with things made by humans, it does not address natural resources such as gold dust, logs, cants, or sunken logs that are not a part of a shipping vessel or archaeological site. Natural items are the concern of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Fossils are not cultural resources and are not protected by this law.
Artifacts are objects made, used or modified by humans, they include but are not excluded to arrowheads, pottery or glass, stone implements, metal objects, coins, tools, etc. Examples of submerged archaeological sites include shipwrecks, debris dumps and terrestrial sites that were flooded when dams were constructed.
The significance of an artifact or archaeological site is determined by four criteria listed on the National Park Service’s website:
If you find an archaeological site, a shipwreck or even an unusual or particularly interesting artifact, you may want to contact the Alabama Historical Commission or a local archaeologist. We can work together to record the resource and determine its significance.
Alabama’s constitution claims “navigable waterways” as state property. This includes river bottoms, bays, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Conservation State Lands Division (334-242-3486) makes the official determination regarding what constitutes a navigable waterway. The mean water level is used primarily in Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and on rivers that do not have any dams or other impoundments. In the case of reservoirs where private corporations or Federal agencies have created the impoundments, the State of Alabama only owns the boundaries of the original river channel. The impoundment or lake bottoms are owned by the private corporations such as Alabama Power or rural electric corporations or Federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Landowners both public and private may have different views about whether or not you can keep what you find. For instance, TVA, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, being federal agencies have very strong protection rules about artifacts on their lands because they are protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It is not legal to collect on state lands or in state waters as items found on state lands belong to all Alabamians. Private sector companies or private landowners will have varying opinions about collecting on their property. If you plan to go hunting, fishing or collecting plants on someone’s private land, you should ask the landowner for permission. The same holds true when you plan to collect artifacts along their beaches, river banks, creeks, or streams.
The State owns the submerged lands up to the “mean” water level. The mean water level is the average of normal high and normal low water marks. In Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the mean water level is determined by the average of high tide and low tide. Land above the mean water level is owned by a variety of groups including Federal and State agencies, private corporations, and private individuals some of which were listed above.