Gold rush: The battle over sunken treasure

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Shipwrecks! Treasure! Gold, gold, gold! The hallmarks of treasure-hunting are the stuff of adventure stories, more than fun enough to make archaeologists, who are mounting increasing complaints against the pillaging of sunken ships, seem like wet blankets.
But more is at stake than just a few loose doubloons, they say. “The big picture is that a fair amount of humanity’s past we don’t know, and it’s important we don’t let it become lost forever,” says maritime archaeologist James Delgado, head of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

The latest flashpoint comes with the recent premiere of the show Treasure Quest on cable’s Discovery Channel (Thurs. 10 pm ET/PT), which follows deepwater exploration company Odyssey Marine Exploration as its teams explore two historic shipwrecks. Odyssey is in hot water with Spain over one of them, fighting it out in U.S. federal court over rights to the wreck code-named the “Black Swan.” Odyssey announced the discovery of the wooden sailing ship in 2007.

An editorial in Archaeology magazine, published by the American Institute of Archaeology, charges that “the Discovery Channel is cashing in on the business of systematically looting shipwrecks” in teaming up with Odyssey. “The artifacts that Odyssey sells might inspire people to wonder about what life was like on board a ship a few hundred years ago when they 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. Otherwise the artifacts are just trinkets, conversation pieces, or decorative touches on the coffee tables of those who can afford them,” writes the magazine’s Zach Zorich.

“Our series chronicles OME’s exploration efforts, which yield valuable archaeological information,” says Elizabeth Hillman, Discovery Channel’s senior vice president of communications. Odyssey didn’t reply to a request for comments on the editorial. “Odyssey believes good business and sound archaeological practice can co-exist and thrive together, and that the treasures and the knowledge recovered from the deep ocean should be shared with the world,” says the company on its website. Odyssey says it recovered more than 500,000 silver and several hundred gold coins from the Black Swan wreck, some of which it intends to sell to finance its work.

Marine archaeologists, such as Delgado, complain that salvage firms like Odyssey rarely get around to publishing scholarly information on sites. Once sold, artifacts are effectively lost for study by future researchers. For example, archaeologists have analyzed in recent years decades-old discoveries of shipwreck amphora to determine what sort of wine Greece exported in the Classical era, around 500 B.C., impossible if the artifacts had been sold to collectors, he argues.

All this comes as the AIA this month called for increased protection of sunken wrecks through a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) pact called the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The AIA “urges ratification of the same by the United States Government at the earliest practicable moment.” Signed by only 20 small countries, notably Spain and Mexico, the act went into effect on Jan. 2 and bars commercial salvage of shipwrecks and submerged ruins.

From legal disputes between Peru and Yale University over its collection of Incan antiquities, to Italy’s high-profile pursuit of looted artifacts, to the headline-garnering sacking of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the public has gained some awareness of the damage that treasure hunters do to archaeology, says Delgado, who starred in National Geographic Channel series on underwater archaeology from 2000 to 2006. “But a double-standard seems to exist for underwater sites,” he says. “Archaeologists just argue that a historical site is a historical site, no matter if it is wet or dry.”

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