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The Key To Davy Jones' Locker - Part II

Ocean News and Technology - April, 1996
by Greg Stemm

A Review Of Deep Ocean Shipwreck Exploration Issues

Part II - Historical Shipwreck Recovery Ethics

"Ethics is the art of recommending to others the sacrifices required for cooperation with oneself." - Bertrand Russell

As deep ocean technology continues to advance, more and more valuable historical shipwrecks are going to be found in deep water. In theory, this is wonderful for both academic and commercial interests. In truth, this is where the serious ethical considerations and potential problems begin.

Commercial involvement in historical shipwrecks is an issue that traditionally attracts venomous reactions from some of the most conservative members of the archaeological community. Unfortunately, the vitriolic tone tends to hide the truly valid concerns that academic professionals have... concerns that commercial interests urgently need to consider.

First and foremost, many archaeologists argue that a shipwreck site in the ocean is no different from any land site. They point out that those who applaud the adventures of deep ocean "treasure hunters" would (rightfully) be very critical of someone caught robbing an Egyptian tomb or an Anastazi Indian grave site. And they are right. Is there any justification for making a distinction between these two apparently similar activities?

Theoretically, the knowledge derived from archaeological sites belongs to everyone. Access to the history and knowledge of our ancestors is generally considered an inalienable right of all people by most cultures and nations. You simply can't tear up a historically significant building or grave site without any accountability. Commercial interests must be prepared to acknowledge this in order to reach a consensus that allows them to co-exist with the historical and archaeological community.

On land sites, there are typically legal mechanisms that acknowledge the rights of both archaeologists and commercial interests. Salvage archaeology on land is commonplace when an important historical site interferes with a "commercial opportunity". Is all the knowledge from these land sites saved? No, but as much will have been gleaned as can reasonably be expected during an archaeological excavation of this nature. The result is a compromise between archaeological interests and commercial interests. Archaeologists will be the first to tell you that even under the best of circumstances, theirs is a destructive science, and they typically destroy a site when they excavate it, even though profit is not the motive for excavation.

After a salvage archaeological excavation is completed, the commercial firm is free to continue their pursuit of a profit-making venture, even though the site was destroyed in the process. They can legally do this because they spent the money to save for the public what the public has a right to... the knowledge from that site. This may be a useful model for future legislation relating to deep ocean commercial archaeological projects.

"The Pride of Ownership?"

Should salvors be allowed to own or sell artifacts? Does their sale necessarily compromise the value of the information which can be gained from the excavation of a site? Should artifacts be left undisturbed in the ocean or stored in museums? In a US Federal Court opinion (Commonwealth vs Barnes Foundation), the judge states, "A painting has no value except the pleasure it imparts to the person who views it. A work of art entombed beyond every conceivable hope of exhumation would be as valueless as one completely consumed by fire. Thus, if the paintings here involved may not be seen, they may as well not exist". This is an important consideration legally, if not ethically, and could apply to artifacts just as easily.

Would it be reasonable to suggest that fine art of the masters couldn't be owned by private individuals? Should everything of historical significance... art, stamps, coins, antiques, fossils... be illegal to buy, sell and trade? This contravenes our basic right to enjoy ownership of private property. Of course, important artifact collections, whether from land sites or shipwrecks, must be kept together for study, but there will only be public support if this requirement is moderate and reasonable. In return, commercial interests must develop and abide by a code of ethics that compels them to plan exactly how they will handle the conservation and disposition of these collections, and they must anticipate financing the publication of data, documentation, storage and maintenance.

"The Case of the "Disappearing" Shipwreck"

Another important issue, and a very controversial one, is the theory that deep ocean sites continue to deteriorate, and should be recovered to "save" them from disappearing entirely. This is a favorite argument of the "Treasure Hunters." It's true that the deep ocean is a very harsh environment, and its effects on shipwrecks are not well-understood. However, fragile artifacts recovered by George Bass and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology team from the Uluburun shipwreck included seeds, pollen and other delicate objects which indicated minimum deterioration during the past 3,000 years. Other deep ocean finds tend to corroborate the theory that under some circumstances, there is stabilization.

Should we consider that shipwrecks do, in fact, stabilize and should be left alone for future generations to study? Unfortunately, the data we have for evaluating this is inconclusive and should be the subject of additional research, not arguments. What we do know, however, is that while shipwrecks may reach a relative equilibrium in nature, destruction can be caused by deep ocean oil exploration, pipelines, fishing, shrimping, cable laying, dredging and looting by "pirates".

Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology's excavation of a 17th Century Spanish Colonial shipwreck found that it had been repeatedly torn apart by deep trawl nets, and the contents scattered, in spite of its location 20 miles from shore in 400 meters depth. There was virtually no iron left on the site, and only a small percentage of the hull which had been covered by ballast and silt remained. On another 18th Century Spanish Shipwreck, tread marks and site disturbances from the US Navy's NR-1 sub were found around the site, and that was also at nearly 400 meters depth! Again, nearly all wood and iron from that shipwreck had virtually disintegrated, leaving little more than ballast stones.

Whether they have stabilized or not, technology will allow "Pirates" and looters to simply drop a grab bucket into these important sites and dump the remains on their deck, and current laws can do nothing to stop them. We have heard terrible stories of ancient Brass cannons and coins being melted down and sold for scrap in countries that don't allow any legal access to shipwreck sites. When this happens (and it already has), absolutely no knowledge is saved from the site... it's lost forever.

"After All, It's Only Money"

The cost of accessing deep ocean sites is another very important consideration. The amount of money typically spent in two days excavating a 500 meter deep shipwreck is equal to the budget necessary to keep an archaeologist in the field for a year. Deep ocean work is very expensive, and there are no financial shortcuts. You can't use volunteers to operate delicate multi-million dollar deep ocean equipment. It's possible that the only way that archaeologists will have access to this wonderful source of knowledge is by working with the ventures that fund these projects.

Ironically, many commercial salvors seeking historical shipwrecks in deep water want to engage in a proper archaeological excavation and are willing to set aside a significant amount of money in the budget to pay for it. The problem is that any archaeologist that works for a commercial salvor, no matter how committed the salvor is to conducting a state-of-the-art archaeological excavation, faces condemnation by his peers. This reaction naively plays right into the hands of the "unscrupulous" treasure hunter, by giving him an excuse for not employing archaeologists.

What I find most interesting about the archaeological community's reaction to commercial salvors is that the few most outspoken and emotional critics are typically not actively involved in conducting nautical archaeological excavations. While this isn't a requirement for understanding the ethics of the issue, it certainly weakens their position as a constituency of the resource. On the other hand, indiscriminate destruction of historically significant shipwrecks by "treasure hunters" also destroys their credibility in the debate. A vocal and narrow-minded minority on both sides of the debate has hijacked the academic discussion and turned it into a counter-productive battle of egos.

I have discussed the ethical issues of shipwreck salvage with many nautical archaeologists, and the majority agree that it's time for a compromise that allows cooperative participation with salvors to ensure that as much knowledge as possible is saved from these underwater sites.

"Where Do We Go From Here?"

This is the dawn of what is potentially a multi-billion dollar new industry. Shipwrecks in the deep ocean not only promise significant economic returns, but immensely valuable historical data. Untold treasures, both tangible and intangible, will be returned to the light of day for the first time in hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Undersea exploration will take great strides as these treasures are sought and recovered. Millions of dollars will be lost, and millions made. Like any industry in its infancy, the pioneers will bear the brunt of the costs of innovation. Governments throughout the world will need to learn to work with salvors and vice versa. They both will need to find a way to cooperate with the archaeological community.

Perhaps it's time for the pioneers in the world of commercial archaeology and the archaeological community to join forces to create a standard of ethics and accountability for dealing with this priceless international resource. While people squabble over control of shipwrecks, nature and pirates are gnawing away at these historical treasures. By simply ignoring the problem and withholding legal commercial access to deep ocean shipwrecks, governments may ensure that only looters will have access, and the historical data may be lost forever. By creating a model that allows everyone to participate in a reasonable and ethical manner, we will all win.

We now have the Key to Davy Jones' locker within our grasp. The question is - how will we use it? One day we're going to have to tell our grandchildren what we did with this precious resource, and they'll be the judge of whether we did the right thing.

©1996 Greg Stemm

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