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Divers suspected of stealing artifacts

The remains of hundreds of shipwrecks line the Florida Keys reef tract. Their stories are the history of the Keys.

Some wrecks have been identified, but many have not. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and state archeologist have spent thousands of dollars investigating the wrecks to determine their origin. The remains have become living museums the sanctuary chooses to leave in the waters so divers can enjoy them in their natural state, as opposed to removing them and putting them in a facility on land.

The sanctuary has established a Shipwreck Trail, running from Key West to Key Largo, to showcase the wrecks and educate people on their history and importance.

Sanctuary officials are reminding divers not to take or move anchors, ballast stones and small trinkets found along the reef, as they could be the clues that lead to a wreck being identified.

The reminder comes after sanctuary divers discovered nine Crown patent fuel blocks, a mixture of coals that have been molded into briquettes, stacked on top of each other on a sand patch on Horseshoe Reef off Key Largo in August. Two researchers, who routinely work underwater in that area, observed the newly formed piles of blocks, sanctuary spokeswoman Karrie Carnes said. Sanctuary officials fear someone was trying to take them as souvenirs.

The divers know the blocks could not have been moved by wave action, as they were stacked too perfectly. One pile contained six blocks, with three blocks stacked on top of each other and three additional blocks nearby. Another pile just 10 feet away contained three of the same blocks lying together in the sand.

“While the site may have been impacted by storms and hurricanes over time but nothing except human influence could have created the neat stacks of these artifacts,” said Brenda Altmeier, who works for the sanctuary’s Maritime Heritage Resources Division.

The sanctuary moved the blocks to another area of Horseshoe Reef last month to protect them from further disturbance or theft, Carnes said. They are out of plain sight and protected from surges and other potential environmental impacts.

One of the blocks is on display in the sanctuary’s Upper Keys office.

Sanctuary divers first discovered the blocks and other artifacts on Horseshoe Reef in October 1993. Patent fuel was a means of using small pieces of coal that otherwise would have been wasted. These blocks bear the symbol of the Crown Patent Fuel Works Ltd., formerly of Cardiff, England.

Underwater archeologists suspect the blocks were from the 1894 vessel S.S. Moonstone, Altmeier said. While archeologists have visited the site and collected data to determine its origin, they have not been able to confirm it.

The National Marine Sanctuary Act makes it illegal to disturb a site or recover artifacts without a permit. Movement or disturbance of artifacts could diminish the quantity of potential information that may be obtained from a site, Altmeier said.

“Shipwrecks, as well as the many artifacts located along the Florida Keys, are nonrenewable resources that provide evidence of historical human impacts that have taken place along the Florida Keys for centuries,” Altmeier said. “Removing and/or moving artifacts may cause irreparable damage and potentially inhibit researchers from unlocking questions about past ways of life, historic or legendary events. Each artifact, regardless of its size, can aid in building the story of humankind’s adventure on the sea.”

Keys reefs have seen more than their share of shipwrecks, as captains for generations have struggled to navigate its shallow waters. Each year, archeologists with the State Division of Historical Resources and the sanctuary partner and pick several unidentified wrecks to dive on and collect data from. In the past few years, they have focused their attentions on the remains of three wrecks off Marathon, dubbed only the Rib, Brick and Pin wrecks.

“The wrecks tell us what was going on in transportation, commerce and war,” Division of Historical Resources underwater archeologist Roger Smith said. “These artifacts may seem small and insignificant, but they are a valuable piece of the giant puzzle.”

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