Diving for Diamonds: Letter to NOAA - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Letter to NOAA "Diving for Diamonds"
June 27, 2000

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
1305 East-West Highway
Suite 11515
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Dear Sir or Madam:

As President of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which represents more than 11,000 professional, student, and lay members, I am writing to express our organization's support for the international Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic, and for the proposed Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic.

The wreck of RMS Titanic is a significant archaeological, historic, and cultural site. It should be preserved and managed in the public interest through a concerted international effort. Such an effort is consistent with the principles enunciated in Articles 149 and 303(1) of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as the 1986 RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act. For this reason we support the draft international agreement and proposed Guidelines.

The AIA recognizes that the Guidelines represent an effort to take into account the interests of diverse groups, including archaeologists, scientists, historians, salvors, the media, and the public. In its effort to address and balance these diverse interests, the Guidelines are not likely to satisfy fully any one group. In balance, however, we believe that the policies and management principles articulated in the Guidelines constitute an important step towards the preservation of this important site.

Below I raise a few specific points of concern to our organization.

1. We support the key provisions of the Guidelines concerning the recovery and disposition of artifacts, including the desirability of in situ preservation; the allowance of recovery of artifacts only in limited, well-justified cases; the need to curate all recovered artifacts as a single assemblage; and the provision that project funding must not require the selling of artifacts. But we remain concerned that the Titanic will still be the target of commercial salvage efforts.

The AIA opposes commercial treasure hunting and salvage as inimical to the goals of preservation and management of the underwater cultural heritage in the public interest. To reinforce the overall intention of the Guidelines to preserve and manage the Titanic for its archaeological, historical, and cultural values, we recommend inserting, after paragraph 30 of Section XII ("Curation of Project Collection"), the following statement from Article 13 of the ICOMOS Charter (the document that forms the basis for the Guidelines): "Underwater cultural heritage is not to be traded as items of commercial value."

2. Section VI ("Professional Qualifications") states that "Projects shall only be undertaken under the guidance of and in the presence of qualified technical and/or professional experts with experience appropriate to the objectives." We believe that any intrusive research project concerning the Titanic, especially if it involves the recovery of artifacts, should be directed by a professional underwater archaeologist. Under the proposed guidelines, a treasure hunter with salvage experience might qualify as a "qualified technical expert." The professional standards envisioned by the Guidelines, which include research design, survey, recovery, conservation, and assessment, require that a professional underwater archaeologist be involved as project director.

For this reason we prefer that Section VI (17) be replaced with the following statement from the ICOMOS Charter on the Protection and Management of Underwater Cultural Heritage (Article 6): "All intrusive investigations of underwater cultural heritage will only be undertaken under the direction and control of a named underwater archaeologist with recognized qualifications and experience appropriate to the investigation."

3. In Section I (1) ("General Principles"), we recommend the dropping of the phrase "including the need to protect the integrity of RMS Titanic and/or its artifacts from a significant threat." That phrase is unnecessary; in fact, the concept it expresses is covered under "educational, scientific, or cultural interests." We have heard a number of unsubstantiated claims being made about how quickly the Titanic and its artifacts are deteriorating; in the absence of scientific evidence on this point, we are concerned that the deterioration of the wreck may be cited as a "significant threat" in order to justify a wholesale salvage of its contents.

4. Finally, we understand that the current salvors of Titanic have been selling coal from the wreck. As archaeologists, we regard coal as artifactual material and believe that its sale should not be permitted. Although a natural substance, once it has been mined from the ground, transported, modified, stored in the hull of the ship, and now rests amidst the wreckage, the coal from Titanic has become a part of the archaeological and artifactual assemblage. It is also a material that may be studied and analyzed like other artifacts.

In this connection we support the language of Article 1(b) of the draft international Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic, which defines "artifacts" as "the cargo of RMS Titanic and other contents, including those associated objects that are scattered in its vicinity and any portion of the hull." Such a definition would certainly include coal as an artifact.

In sum, we support the proposed Guidelines and international agreement for the Titanic. We appreciate the hard work and dedication that went into their preparation. The enactment of the international agreement and implementation of the Guidelines would be a significant step forward in the protection and management of this significant shipwreck.

Thank you for affording us the opportunity to comment on this important initiative.

Nancy C. Wilkie


© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America