Why I Oppose Commercializing Underwater Wrecks
by Heather Pringle
January 9, 2009
The glee that I took last week in seeing the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage coming into force seems to have provoked much puzzlement on the part of readers. While most respondents agreed that historic shipwrecks scattered on the ocean floor deserved careful archaeological study, many wondered why academic or non-commercial archaeologists should have exclusive right to the world’s underwater heritage.
“Why is it wrong for a private company,” wrote one thoughtful reader, “if it did the excavation the same way a museum or university would have done it, and disseminated the information about it (whether in AJA or on Discovery Channel), why is it wrong for them to keep what they found? Why is that any different from the many, many boxes of artifacts that museums have stowed away [and] gather dust not to be seen by anyone?”
There are several points here which I think are important. To begin with, I have yet to come across a treasure-hunting company operation that even comes remotely close to most government- or university-sponsored excavations. Excavating a shipwreck is a very time-consuming and laborious operation. Quite apart from the slow, tedious work of excavating and meticulously recording an underwater site (work that takes even longer at the bottom of the sea than it does on land), there is the delicate, decade-long or more business of stabilizing and conserving artifacts removed from the water. Then there is the analysis and publication of the finds.
Let me give you one example—the excavation of the Pepper Wreck, part of an early 17th century Portuguese nau that sunk at the mouth of the Tagus River in Portugal. Texas A & M University archaeologist Filipe Castro began excavating what remained of the wreck (after recreational divers had plundered much of it) in 1996. The naus, as I have written elsewhere, were the Renaissance equivalent of the space shuttle, but we know very little about them because treasure hunters have targeted them so extensively. To make the most of the Pepper Wreck find, Castro spent two field seasons alone, in 1999 and 2000, examining the remains of the shattered hull of the wreck, so that he could try to reconstruct the vessel from hull to rigging. Since then he has published two kids’ books and four popular articles, including a wonderful piece in Archaeology magazine, for the public on the wreck. In addition, he has written two scientific books, twenty-six articles and six archaeological reports on the wrecks. His students have written a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation on related topics, and Castro continues even now, to study the wreck, searching for clues to its construction and design.
How does Odyssey’s track record on a ship such as the Reconstruction-era Republic stack up by comparison? Well I think it’s a very different story. Yes, the company cooperated with a National Geographic writer to produce an article, and it allows TV crews to film aspects of its work. But Odyssey’s recovery operations on the ship remain little known to the archaeological community—even though, as the company’s CEO, Greg Stemm, once pointed out to me, “Our budget on a monthly basis is more than the Institute of Nautical Archaeology’s annual budget [at Texas A&M University].”
Indeed, the last time I checked in 2007, Odyssey’s scientific staff had published just one book—on the highly collectible bottles recovered from the ship in 2003. Of the five reports they had written on Republic, none appeared to have been published, although the company said it planned to post them online. Moreover, Odyssey has since moved on to other several other shipwreck projects, including the search for a treasure-laden seventeenth-century British warship, HMS Sussex, off the coast of Spain.
So do I think that Odyssey’s scientific work matches that of the relatively poorly funded Institute of Nautical Archaeology? No I do not. Not even close.
I don’t have space this week to talk about the issue of selling artifacts versus storing them in museum collections. I will take up this subject with delight in a future blog.
Archaeology has just posted three video interviews I did recently with Jim Delgado, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. At the bottom of that webpage, you’ll find links to some of the recent articles I have written on treasure hunting.
Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.