Friday, June 15, 2007

An article on the Archaeology Magazine website (Volume 60 Number 4, July/August 2007) entitled Insider: Profiteers on the High Seas, by Heather Pringle, offers a fascinating insight into the world of underwater archaeology. She begins with a description of the 1865 sinking of the U.S. steamship Republic and its rediscovery, 140 years later by shipwreck salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., who then went on to claim salvage rights:

Under maritime law, salvage companies are permitted to keep the ships they find in international waters, provided no one else claims jurisdiction over the vessels. So Odyssey staked a claim to Republic in a U.S. federal court, obtaining legal ownership. Then, with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the firm raised more than 51,000 gold and silver coins from the site, as well as thousands of other artifacts, including hair-remedy bottles, mustard jars, children's slates, and ink wells. To help finance its operations, Odyssey began selling many of these finds to eager collectors, earning millions in revenues. Impressed, Fortune Small Business magazine put the firm on its cover with the headline: "Treasure Inc.: How an Entrepreneur Went Hunting for Sunken Gold—and Found a $20 Million-a-Year Business."

If a private corporation had targeted such an important site on land in the United States and hawked many of its artifacts, heritage activists would have been up in arms, asking hard questions about the commercial exploitation of the country's cultural history. But there was no public protest over the fate of Republic, and very little criticism in the press. Moreover, this was not an unusual state of affairs—treasure hunters often sell off shipwreck artifacts with scarcely a whisper of opposition. As a journalist who has been writing about archaeology for 25 years, I find this disturbing. Why isn't there more of a hue and cry against nautical treasure hunting? Why does this industry seem to operate so freely? In search of answers, I began closely examining the problem a year ago. I found, to my dismay, that we have created a bizarre double standard for terrestrial and marine sites, turning a blind eye to the fate of the world's shipwrecks. In much of the world's oceans, treasure hunting is a perfectly legal enterprise.
She goes on to explore the daunting issues facing underwater archaeology, via some hair raising facts and figures, and then looks at some of the possible solutions, in this well-researched and very articulate article.