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A new series on the Discovery Channel treats underwater heritage as a commodity to be mined from the seafloor


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A crane aboard Odyssey Explorer lifts a submersible robot, used to search for and remove artifacts from the ocean floor. (Courtesy Discovery Channel)

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For more than a year, the marine salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Spanish government over the rights to a site they call "Black Swan," which might hold the most valuable sunken treasure ever recovered. At the same time, underwater archaeologists working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have succeeded in creating a treaty that bans or restricts treasure hunting in the territorial waters of UNESCO member nations (see "A Victory in the War of Wrecks.") But you won't hear much about any of that in Treasure Quest (Thursdays at 10:00 p.m.), a new series on the Discovery Channel that takes a completely uncritical look at Odyssey's business of finding, removing, and selling archaeological artifacts from the ocean floor. As the UNESCO treaty takes effect and legal pressures mount against Odyssey, the Discovery Channel is cashing in on the business of systematically looting shipwrecks.

The first episode opens with a scene at Black Swan, where the Odyssey crew gleefully scoops up gold and silver coins using a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The scene reveals almost nothing about the site (Odyssey considers even basic information about the site proprietary, including where it is located and whether there is an actual shipwreck there), but it does show that the program's producers are more interested in the search for gold than in history.

The narrator breathlessly repeats that the coins are valued at $500 million, a number that a coin marketer working with Odyssey provided shortly after the find was announced. The narrator doesn't mention that months later, the paperwork Odyssey filed to move the coins from Gibraltar, where they were first brought ashore, to Florida, became public knowledge. Odyssey's export license application showed they valued the coins at only $4 million. No doubt, whatever money Odyssey is making from its deal with the Discovery Channel will help defray legal fees and the costs of looting other historically important shipwrecks such as Merchant Royal, a 17th-century English ship that the show's narrator claims went down with a billion dollars worth of treasure. That number is disputed by scholars. But the controversy never comes up, even though the search for Merchant Royal is the focus of the rest of the episode.

Odyssey's critics don't appear on the show, so there is no one to refute some of the ridiculous things that are said. "Archaeology ain't an art anymore, it's a science," says Odyssey's archaeologist Neil Cunningham Dobson, "and I want to take it into the 21st century." It is a bold statement to make when Odyssey's approach to investigating shipwrecks violates one of the key requirements of science—that other scientists have to be able to repeat the results of your research. If an archaeologist analyzes a collection of artifacts and comes to some conclusions about the history of a shipwreck, it is difficult, if not impossible, to repeat that analysis if the artifacts have been sold off to hundreds of collectors who may or may not want scholars examining their property. Archaeologists who undertake projects where artifacts are put up for sale are working outside the ethical codes and standards of the field, and no amount of hi-tech hardware changes that.


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These coins were recovered from an underwater archaeological site. Information about where they were found is owned by Odyssey Marine Exploration. (Courtesy Discovery Channel)

Likewise, Odyssey's "21st-century science" isn't subject to peer review, the process whereby other scientists look for weaknesses and mistakes in a research study before it is published in a scientific journal. For all the noise Odyssey makes about doing scientific research, its investigations, spanning more than 20 years, haven't produced any scientific journal articles. Much of the information about the sites Odyssey investigates is considered proprietary and is not shared with scholars outside the company. With no artifacts and no peer review, there is no debate about the identity and history of the wrecks. Odyssey's interpretations are the first, last, and only word on the archaeology of the wrecks they loot. There is no way to know if Odyssey's interpretations are the most plausible ones or simply the ones that best help them sell coins, win lawsuits, and make TV shows.

Treasure Quest is a slow-moving affair. It relies on extensive narration to drive the show instead of letting people's actions carry the story the way it does on Discovery's more interesting programs such as Deadliest Catch, which chronicles the lives of crab-fishermen on the Bering Sea. Instead of scenes showing hardworking people struggling against the elements to make a living, Treasure Quest has scenes of middle-aged men sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping coffee, and cracking lame jokes while the ROV pokes around a couple of wreck sites that had been discovered years earlier.

The only moments of dramatic tension come when Odyssey's ship is anchored in the English Channel, blocking a shipping lane, and a French Navy jet does a few low flyovers to emphasize that they need to move their ship. The captain claims that the jet pilot's actions are dangerous and illegal, apparently forgetting that he nearly caused a collision with a freighter earlier in the show.

The technology that Odyssey uses to explore shipwrecks is the most interesting part of the program. But the show's producers seem to confuse using cutting-edge technology with doing cutting-edge science. The gee-whiz gadgetry doesn't produce much information that is useful to the academic community, and that is a big loss. The artifacts that Odyssey sells might inspire people to wonder about what life was like aboard a vessel hundreds of years ago when ships played an integral role in the rise and fall of nations, but getting real answers about that history requires wrecks to be scientifically excavated and analyzed. The results have to be shared and debated so that they can become part of the historical and archaeological records. This process helps to ensure that the version of history the public hears is as accurate as it can be. Otherwise the artifacts are just trinkets, conversation pieces, or decorative touches on the coffee tables of those who can afford them.

For a show that promises to take viewers deep under the surface of the ocean, Treasure Quest seems content just to skim the surface of the work Odyssey does. What could have been an interesting look at the issues surrounding a controversial way of investigating nautical history is instead an endorsement of destroying the archaeological record for profit.

Zach Zorich is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

More about underwater cultural heritage from ARCHAEOLOGY

  • Contributing Editor Heather Pringle reported on the 1814 wreck of HMS Fantome in 2006 and analyzed how treasure hunting is devastating our underwater cultural heritage in "Profiteers on the High Seas" in 2007.

  • In "Ocean's Three" Pringle interviews Jim Delgado, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, about why we should care about shipwrecks and what we gain by protecting them and hears about his discoveries excavating Khubilai Khan's lost fleet and San Francisco's gold rush port. You can watch the interview via the ARCHAEOLOGY site or on our YouTube site.

  • Meanwhile, 20 nations have signed on to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which now goes into force for those countries. What does that mean? Heather Pringle sums it up in her blog entry for January 2: "A Victory in the War of Wrecks."
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