A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Hollywood takes a dive on heritage
I am sometimes amused, and often dumbfounded, at Hollywood's take on the past. Films such as Troy and The Passion of the Christ are totally divorced from archaeological and literary evidence. I realize that such big-screen productions aren't factual documentaries about ancient history, and the Indiana Jones movies aren't faithful depictions of how archaeologists work, but recently, in National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Fool's Gold, Hollywood really missed the boat on underwater cultural heritage. The sore point here is that ancient or historic remains found underwater are somehow thought to be fair game--free to anybody who can bring them up. So a sweepstakes promoting National Treasure was linked to treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration, which is now in a legal dispute with Spain over several shipwrecks. The grand prize was a Mercedes and $50,000 in "treasure," which consisted of coins Odyssey had taken from the nineteenth-century American steamer Republic (see "Profiteers on the High Seas," July/August 2007).
Critics panned Fool's Gold, calling it "dead-in-the-water" (Entertainment Weekly) and "a soggy, listless affair" (Hollywood Reporter), but audiences liked it and on its opening weekend the film topped the box office with $21 million. The story is about a ne'er-do-well treasure hunter and his wife who hunt down a Spanish wreck loaded with, of course, treasure. No mention, apparently, of the fact that the quest would likely end--as Odyssey has found out--with the pair in court facing off against the Spanish government's attorneys.
But it is not just Spain that is victimized by underwater treasure hunters. We all lose when sites, on land or below water, are destroyed for the commercial benefit of a few. A new UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage will soon come into effect (16 countries have signed it so far), and it is under consideration by the United States. (See www.archaeological.org/archaeologywatch for more information.) A fundamental principle of the convention is that heritage beneath the seas deserves the same respect accorded to sites and monuments on land. Simply put, nobody would condone the commercial mining of a Roman or Native American site on land, so why should we accept it underwater? Perhaps Hollywood should ponder this question.
C. Brian Rose is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.