SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The wind and the waves peeled back layers of Cumberland Island sand last December to reveal a piece of history: the wooden bones of a long-lost cargo ship.
Archaeologists surmised from the gunnel and wooden nails that the 100-foot-long vessel was at least 150 years old, possibly a blockade runner used during the Civil War to transport guns, food and soldiers past Union forces.
Experts believe the so-called "Cumberland Shipwreck," never documented, could be a major historical discovery. So they did what the state of Georgia usually does with such significant maritime finds: They took samples, re-covered the ship in sand, then walked away.
At least 1,200 historically significant ships — dating to the 1730s, by one respected reckoning — have gone down in Coastal Georgia waters. Revolutionary War gunships. Civil War Ironclads. Whaling ships. Cotton schooners. Paddle-wheel steamers. WWII oilers.
Not a single coastal shipwreck, though, has been excavated and put on permanent display. Florida and the Carolinas do a more thorough job investigating, cataloging, preserving and exhibiting their underwater booty and profiting from the tourism it attracts. North Carolina, for example, attracted 400,000 visitors last year to its three maritime museums.
Georgia's neighbors spend more money on maritime archaeology and employ more staff. They also tap more public and private resources to discover what's underwater and if it's worth preserving.
Meanwhile, Georgia gets by with one maritime archaeologist, a donated Boston Whaler and a budget of $71,000 per year - which includes the scientist's salary.
"We have a rich history - I'd put it up against any of our neighboring states," said David Crass, the historic preservation director for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "But Georgia has not traditionally stressed the maritime portion of our heritage."
With limited budgets, states must prudently decide what part of their maritime history to highlight. Once a wreck is found, for example, it is typically surveyed and cataloged and left in place. Reburying in mud or sand preserves the vessel in a cost-efficient manner.
Georgia may soon begin to recapture a critical piece of its maritime history with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps, armed with $14 million, will raise the remains of the CSS Georgia, a Civil War Ironclad sitting on the bottom of the Savannah River a few miles east of the city's picturesque waterfront.
Judy Wood, a maritime archaeologist newly retired from the corps in Savannah, documented the 1,200 shipwrecks off Georgia's coast between 1738 and 1890. Her database was compiled over 25 years of researching shipping records, newspaper accounts, personal diaries and other sources.
Up until the 1800s, Georgia life revolved around the coast as most citizens lived within 50 miles of the ports and the commercial hubs of Savannah, Sunbury, Darien, Brunswick and St. Marys. Traders along major rivers, including the Altamaha, Ogeechee and Savannah, delivered deer skins, timber and naval stores to ocean-going vessels. Sloops ferried rice and cotton from coastal plantations to port towns.
Georgia is blessed, or cursed, with a hundred-mile coastline and 2,344 miles of shoreline wending in and around inlets and islands. Its shallow waters, filled with shifting shoals and barrier islands, have befuddled mariners for centuries. Bad weather amplified navigational challenges.
A half-dozen major hurricanes in the 19th century sent dozens of ships to the bottom, Wood's research shows, including the storm of 1893 that sundered 32 steamers, ferries, barks, sloops and tugboats.
Wrecks "tend to cluster around the mouths of ports because ships would see a storm coming in and try to make it to a port in time," Wood said. "The outgoing guys, if something was wrong, they could wait for their weather window. But if they were incoming from the Caribbean or Europe, they had to deal with the weather at hand."
Wood documented a rich history of maritime misery. In 1780, as the Revolutionary War raged, the HMS Defiance, a 64-gun British warship, sank off the coast near Tybee Island. A hundred years later, the Petrel, a Massachusetts whaler, ran aground on Jekyll Island, although 85 barrels of sperm oil and whale bones were salvaged.
Wood relishes the tale of The Albion, a British merchant ship that lost its mast in the Hurricane of 1824 near Sapelo Island. En route to Ireland from Honduras with a cargo of mahogany, The Albion drifted for five days with five sailors lashed to the poop deck to keep from going overboard.
The 8 Best Natural Gas Stocks. Find Out How to Invest.