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Beyond Stone & Bone

Why I Oppose Commercializing Underwater Wrecks
by Heather Pringle
January 9, 2009

A Painting by Claude-Joseph VernetThe 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.

5 comments for "Why I Oppose Commercializing Underwater Wrecks"

  • Reply posted by Collin Lee (January 9, 2009, 6:38 am):

    Hi Heather. As always, a well supported and thoughtful response. As I mentioned in the earlier post, I had written my impassioned argument against museums and universities before reading your article about the Portuguese Indiamen in the most recent edition of Archaeology, which presents an excellent case against the looters. The fact that archaeologists are usually trying to piece together history from the dregs of a wreckage that looters have already ruined for any scientific data is unfortunate and deplorable.

    However, you have to admit that there is an interesting side-effect of the scientific community having first-access rights to sites, be them ruins or ship wrecks; they get first access rights to all the valuables as well, and take good advantage of this. So while I agree that science is best served by the protection of the wrecks for their scientific study, that you can’t pretend that any “treasure” involved isn’t a factor. As scientists, the archaeologists leading the excavations might be above such petty concerns as the monetary value of the wrecks. But I guarantee that the museums and universities funding them are not, and are VERY interested in the next exhibit or artifact that the site might yield.

    And no, I am not arguing the other side of “the issue of selling artifacts versus storing them in museum collections”. I do NOT support the idea of a black market for ancient artifacts so that the super-wealthy can have them in their private collections. We’re not talking about ancient statues, or masks, or frescoes or amphorae. We’re talking about gold and silver coins and other valuables that were lost in transit to the sea. And I don’t think it seems fair that in protecting the sites for scientific knowledge, the end result is that they are also protecting their exclusive rights to any valuables. Say a farmer is digging in his field and unearths a 2500 year old statue. Is it fair that he doesn’t have the rights to it, but that a museum can swoop in, “protect” it from him, and then put it in their museum where the common people have to pay for the right to see it, while the museum makes money off of it? This issue, or the indigenous perception of it, is exactly where Walter Alva and the archaeologists ran so viciously afoul of local enmity at Sipan. Locals were getting rich on the finds at Sipan until the archaeologists got involved, and then took the artifacts and made a museum in an nearby town, while the locals were left out in the cold. Alva was only interested in the heritage and scientific knowledge that was lost, but that didn’t mean anything to the dirt-poor indigenous people who got shunted out of a profitable enterprise.

    What I do argue is that artifacts belong to the cultures from which they came, not Harvard or the British Museum or whoever. A couple of months ago William Fash, the Director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, announced that they would be returning some of the jade artifacts that E.H. Thompson took from Chichen Itza to Mexico. THIS is a step in the right direction, if a very small one. The west’s imperialistic approach to other people’s antiquities has to come to an end. I know there are arguments that some cultures can’t properly protect their own artifacts and heritage, but honestly, that is up to them to decide. It is time for cooperation and sharing of cultures, not to the richest and most elite having sole “stewardship” over the cultural heritage of every other civilization.

    But as you said, this is an argument for another day, one only tangential to the issue of shipwrecks and their loot. I was just reacting to the idea that you are either on the side of scientists and universities, or on the side of selling history to the highest bidder. I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable on all aspects of the argument; Heather is the professional who has done a ton of research and written brilliant articles on the subject. I bow to your expertise on this subject, and I agree with you on the point that history is lost when looters get there first. But I don’t agree that there is no financial side to the equation on the side of the funding universities and museums. There is gold and silver booty to be had, and they want it as much as people like Odyssey. That’s all I’m saying.


  • Reply posted by Peter Hess (January 19, 2009, 7:16 am):

    Here is a novel idea for the nautical archaeologist: find a shipwreck on one’s own volition that has never been discovered before. Then have at it with one’s heart’s content and publish umpteen zillion scientific accounts thereof.

    All that the rank and file underwater explorers lacking PhD’s in archaeology ask of your colleagues is that they not lay claim to every damned shipwreck in the world’s oceans in the name of historic preservation. This sort of unbridled avarice–precisely the sentiment you condemn on the part of the private sector–only incentivizes the underwater explorer to work clandestinely, take what he or she percieves as valuable from a shipwreck, and never report the discovery lest the finder run afoul of the UNESCO CPUCH or some similar draconian manifestation of bureaucratic greed.


  • Reply posted by Heather (January 19, 2009, 3:40 pm):

    Peter: Let me guess. Are you the lawyer Peter Hess who specializes in representing “salvors” in admiralty court, and taking a cut in the process?


  • Reply posted by Jack Dyer (February 11, 2009, 6:30 am):

    Heather: Let me guess. Are you a biased reporter that only writes about one side of a story, the publish or perish mob’s view and never uses the words Admiralty law in any of your articles.


  • Reply posted by Graham (August 10, 2009, 7:55 am):

    Hi Heather,

    You wonder why Odyssey has not been published. I have it on good authority that they have been snubbed at every turn by the very ‘academics’ that you represent. Yes, they could publish on their own website, but then you and others would derride them for not having the credibility to be published in ‘serious’ journals. A no win situation.

    I say you give Odyseey a chance, even co-operate and go on just one expedition with them. Then if you find fault with their methods, you’d have every right to criticize. But until then, you don’t.

    Might I suggest that the real reason that academics such as yourself loathe the salvors…is simply that they have found their sea-legs, and you have not. You know you’d be a useless liability in that environment, which is one reason why the dangerous work of deep sea archaeology should be left to the experts…Odyssey Marine.

    Approach Odyssey, I’m sure they’d welcome you aboard.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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