Cartographer finds hidden treasure

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Dr. E. Lee Spence, a marine archaeologist and modern pioneer of underwater exploration, has had a lifetime fascination with treasures and maps. He describes his maps as the “natural byproduct” of his research to locate sunken ships.

Dr. E. Lee SpenceIn 1970, Spence discovered the submarine H. L. Hunley, which sank on Feb. 17, 1864. His maps proved to be more than a natural byproduct. They were a necessary tool for preserving his discovery before souvenir hunters could destroy it.

“I read Treasure Island and was fascinated by its tale of pirates and buried treasure. I started burying coins for others to find, imagining the thrill it would give the finders,” Spence says.

His propensity for hiding coins continues to this day: “When we break a cup or plate, we don’t throw it out. We bury the pieces outside. Someday someone is going to dig them up.”

Spence started drawing maps when he was young. “Not long ago, I went looking for a jar of silver coins that I buried in the dirt floor of our family carport when I was a child and we were living in Georgia. It was money saved from my paper route.

“I still had the map I had drawn showing where I buried those coins, but I still couldn’t find them. The house was gone, the carport was gone. All of the locators or signposts I had recorded on my ‘treasure map’ were long gone,” he recalls.

While Spence’s paper route money disappeared with the landscape, that was not the case with silver dimes and quarters he had secreted under the corner of his family’s home on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., when he was a teenager.

Decades later, he took his son Matthew to look for them. Using a metal detector, Matthew, then just 10 years old, quickly found his father’s buried trove of coins.

Beside burying treasures and drawing maps, Spence also started collecting maps in his youth. “I could buy antique maps for 25 cents. That was half my weekly allowance,” he says.

When Spence went off to college, he went to the National Archives. He found out that the Government Printing Office was still selling 19th century maps for their original-issue price, as long as the Printing Office still had them in its inventory. The original prices used to be 50 cents or a dollar.

“I bought many navigational charts from the 1800s. The most expensive one was $2.50,” Spence remembers.

Spence sits in his treasure-filled office outside Columbia, S.C. A bank building with a 3-foot thick vault door serves as his repository for many of the shipwreck coins and valuable artifacts he has discovered under the oceans of the world. He still buys antique maps but now pays thousands of dollars for them.

Mapmaking As Art

Spence pursued mapmaking studies and eventually a career in finding shipwrecks. However, when he went to college, there were no programs in underwater archaeology.

Shipwrecks of the Civil War“Because I figured I would need mapping skills, I started out in civil engineering. I later took a number of cartography courses, including one in interpretation of aerial photography and another in computer mapping,” he says.

Spence says that he loves drawing maps and explains how maps can influence people’s perception: “On a flat map of North of America, Greenland is gigantic in comparison to the way the same island appears on a globe. Depending on who is drawing a map, it might be used to twist realities and effect political or other goals.

“In the old, days maps were used to convince people to explore and settle the interior of our country. Look at a highway map versus a map made for commercial interests. They can be vastly different.”

Spence got inspiration from shipwreck charts in the National Geographic Magazine. Some of his maps show how to get to specific shipwrecks that he has found, while others are based largely on the historical records of shipwrecks rather than on fieldwork.

Some maps deal with a special period like the Civil War. Others cover hundreds of wrecks spanning hundreds of years.

“Maps I draw for publication are usually decorative and meant for people to hang on a wall,” he says.

Some of Spence’s most extraordinary maps are those that he handcolors using techniques that map makers of old used before color printing. “I use water colors in the antique style. I sell those as limited editions,” he says.

One of Spence’s most popular maps has sold over 30,000 copies. It is a chart of Civil War shipwrecks near Charleston. “For each wreck on my map Shipwrecks of the Civil War, I used a small, very simple sketch showing the type of ship to represent its location.”

With his books and charts, Spence mainly wants to share his knowledge. “People buying my Civil War shipwreck maps are not just buying my art. Most of them like my maps for the history they portray. The inclusion of shipwrecks, with their lure of sunken treasure, is usually a large part of their appeal,” he explains.

Spence’s charts titled Shipwrecks of Hilton Head and Vicinity and Shipwrecks of Wreck Valley: New York and New Jersey are majestically framed and include bits of artifacts he has recovered from specific shipwrecks. His charts are not only collector’s pieces but are also coveted by museums.

Raising a Sunken Submarine

Spence was the first person to discover the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley. The little submarine attacked and sank the Housatonic, a U.S. steam sloop of war, on Feb. 17, 1864.

Hunley_01After the attack, the Hunley and its crew of nine men disappeared without a trace until Spence found the wreck 106 years later. The Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in the history of the world.

The day Spence found the wreck, it was almost entirely buried. He could still view a narrow portion of the upper hull. Fortunately, it was enough to identify it. Lee went swimming to the surface, literally screaming underwater: “I have found the Hunley! I have found the Hunley!”

Spence carefully plotted the location of his discovery and shared his maps with various government officials to seek permission for digging up and raising the submarine.

A map, which Spence published well before anyone else had gone to the site, is proof of his discovery. An “X” is at the exact position where the Hunley was eventually raised.

“Just like on the old pirate maps, I used an ‘X’ to mark my spot and sent copies to the government and even included it in my 1995 book,” Spence says.

A wreck is only eligible for the National Register for Historic Places if its actual location is known, so Spence’s maps turned out to be crucial in preserving the Hunley.

In 1976, based on Spence’s mapped location, the National Park Service nominated the Hunley to be placed on the Register for Historic Places, and it was placed on the Register in 1978.

The entire wreck was eventually excavated and raised in 2000. The remains of the crew were removed and buried with military honors.

Named for General Robert E. Lee, a distant relative, E. Lee Spence has family roots as far back as American history can be traced. Spence is a Southern gentleman who has become a legend in his own time.


Author: John Christopher Fine | Source: The Epoch Times [February 16, 2011]


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