Cultural Heritage In Inner Space:
Thoughts on the Future of Historical Shipwrecks

Thirty First Annual Law of the Sea Institute - March 30, 1998
by Greg Stemm

What does the future hold for the protection of underwater cultural resources throughout the world? New technologies now enable the location and recovery of shipwrecks, airplanes and other cultural resources that were previously beyond the reach, both physically and financially, of salvors, archaeologists, divers and fishermen.

Understandably, a serious debate over the control of this resource has materialized. None of the constituencies seem to dominate the issue. However, the hearts and minds of the public seem to support the treasure hunters, and public institutions tend to follow the lead of the archaeologists. The media usually report the most exciting story.

Obviously a whole new paradigm for dealing with this resource is going to evolve. It will have to take into account all constituencies, or efforts to regulate access will be useless. Attempts at preventing access to historical shipwrecks by some governments have appear to have ensured that they are looted by pirates (with no historical knowledge gleaned from the site), destroyed by giant trawlers or lost slowly through natural causes. It is like leaving a box of fragile antiques in the middle of a highway, and believing they are protected by making it illegal to remove them.

Ethics and Shipwrecks: The Moral Dilemma

The worldwide standard for a historically significant shipwreck is generally one hundred years of age or older. One rationalization for this criteria is that after the late 19th century, there is very little that can be learned from a shipwreck about our culture and history that can't be learned through photographs, books, ship's plans, newspapers and other media.

How shipwrecks designated as "historical" are handled is the issue that traditionally attracts the most venomous and heated debate between the different factions that presume to have the moral right to the resource. The clearest battle lines are drawn between the archaeological community and anyone who wants to make a profit from recovering shipwrecks or "Treasure Hunters".

The gross generalization of all commercial salvors into this "Treasure Hunter" category seems to be counterproductive to the cause of the archaeological community. Unfortunately, it tends to block the truly valid concerns that the archaeologists haveconcerns that commercial interests should seriously consider.

Many archaeologists argue that a shipwreck site in the ocean is no different from any land site. It is suggested that people who applaud the efforts and adventures of deep ocean treasure hunters would be very critical of someone caught robbing an Egyptian tomb or an Anastazi Indian site. And they are right. Is there any reason to consider these two very similar activities in a different light?

Most would agree that the knowledge derived from archaeological sites belongs to everyone. Access to this knowledge of our ancestors is generally considered an inalienable right of all people by most cultures and nations. This concept is well-documented and accepted as the law of the land in most countries of the world. Throughout most of the world, you simply can't tear up a historically-significant building or gravesite to make way for commercial interests, without any accountability. Acceptance of this concept by salvors is necessary to reach a consensus that allows commercial interests and archaeologists to co-exist.

Where the comparison between land sites and maritime sites breaks down, however, is that on land sites, there are typically legal or regulatory constraints which allow reasonable, commercial access. In the ocean, especially in international waters, there are now virtually no constraints that require an archaeological excavation of historical sites . By contrast, in the territorial waters of many countries, no allowance whatsoever is made for commercial access by salvors.

Let's look at a hypothetical example of how the contradictory requirements of commercial and archaeological access to a cultural resource on land would be handled. If, in the course of excavating a site for a new shopping mall, the foundation of an old fort is found, excavation would typically stop until an archaeological consulting firm could evaluate the site. If the evaluation found that there was some historically significant data to be gleaned from the site, the commercial firm would be required to underwrite the expenses of a salvage excavation.

Would all the knowledge from the site have been saved? No, but as much as can reasonably be expected during an excavation of this nature. This is a compromise between archaeological interests and commercial interests. Even under the best of circumstances, archaeology is a destructive science, and a site is destroyed when excavated. Whether profit is the motive for excavation doesn't change this.

In this example, the commercial firm is free to continue their pursuit of a profit-making venture, even though this site was destroyed in the process. They can do this because they spent the money to save for the public what the public has a right tothe knowledge from that site.

By overlaying this scenario on a commercial maritime salvage project, we introduce some variables that don't exist on land. First of all, a land site is accessible to everyone, so the argument could be made that it should be enclosed and the public be given access to it. In some significant cases, such as the Alamo, or an Anastazi site, this is what happens. In the case of a shipwreck, this is simply not possible. The public just can't easily access these sites.

Another important issue, and a very controversial one, is the theory that buried land sites reach an equilibrium where they are generally stabilized and deterioration has stopped. This is especially true in very cold and/or dry climates.

It has been suggested that the same happens in deep ocean sites. However, the ocean is an extremely harsh environment. The extensive damage to shipwrecks by nature is well documented, and contradicts the theory that they have stabilized. Some historical sites have been found to be relatively intact, but we don't know how many iron, silver or bronze artifacts from those wrecks have already disappeared, not to mention the organic remains.

There is a fault in the logic that suggests that "since some shipwrecks have survived, they all reach equilibrium". It is like suggesting that because some mammoths have been preserved in glaciers, an elephant's body will reach equilibrium if you just leave it where it falls. Obviously we can see those that have survived, but by definition, we can't see those that have been lost to us forever.

The argument for leaving these shipwrecks undisturbed also doesn't take into account the destruction that is being caused by deep ocean oil exploration, pipelines, fishing , shrimping, cable laying, dredging and "pirates".

As technology cheapens, and more people have access to these deep water shipwrecks, salvors will have the technology to drop a grab bucket into historical shipwreck sites and dump the remains on deck, to be sorted through with shovels. This technology allows access to items of intrinsic value, but destroys the integrity of the site.

There are many stories of the horrors of the destruction of maritime cultural resources; ancient Brass Cannons being melted down and sold for scrap, reefs being "dynamited" to gain access to shipwrecks, and delicate organic materials being hurriedly destroyed to gain access to the "treasure". The great irony is that this typically takes place in those countries that don't allow legitimate shipwreck archaeology by commercial concerns. When this happens, absolutely no knowledge is saved from the siteit's lost forever.

Ironically, most legitimate commercial salvors are willing to engage in a proper archaeological excavation. Nearly all are willing to set aside a significant amount of money in the budget to pay for it. The problem is that archaeologists that work for commercial salvors, no matter how committed the salvor is to conducting a legitimate archaeological excavation, face being blackballed and condemned by some of their peers.

The primary difference between the commercial archaeological expedition and a typical institutional operation is that trade goods of intrinsic value (coins, bullion, porcelain, etc.) may be sold, so the entire collection would not be kept intact. Fortunately, these items are the least interesting culturally, and the easiest to document without keeping them together as a collection.

Should any shipwreck artifacts ever be sold? In a US Federal Court opinion , 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". To further elaborate on the analogy of paintings and art, no one has ever reasonably suggested that the fine art of the masters, no matter how valuable or significant, can't be owned by private individuals. Private ownership of art hasn't limited the scope or access to Art History. The same applies to buildings, antiques, stamps, coins, even fossils. Should it be any different for shipwreck artifacts?

The majority of Nautical Archaeologists with whom I have discussed the issue agree that it is time for a compromise that allows their community to participate with salvors in a cooperative manner to make sure that as much knowledge as possible is saved from these underwater sites.

A Conservation Model for Shipwrecks?

Is it possible to develop a reasonable model for allocation of underwater cultural resources? Perhaps a good start would be to look at them as any other resource - considering all end-users and constituencies in the process.

Some of the most important questions that should be considered include: What comprises the total universe of this cultural resource? How many shipwrecks that should be considered culturally important sites are out there? It is difficult to determine just how many shipwrecks there are in the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers of the world, but let's look at a small snapshot that may give us a frame of reference.

Research indicates that during five years in the mid 19th century, ten thousand sailing ships insured in England alone were lost in various parts of the world, nearly a thousand of them without a trace . While this is certainly not a representative sample that can be extrapolated in order to determine the total number of shipwrecks, it can be used as a rough starting point. In this case, just one country (albeit one with a highly developed maritime industry) lost 2,000 ships per year. If one were to assume that during the last three thousand years, 1,000 shipwrecks per year throughout the entire world have been lost and preserved in a state that would constitute a cultural resource, that would indicate a total resource in excess of 3,000,000 shipwrecks. This estimate is probably conservative, but it is certainly a starting point.

Who are the constituencies of this huge resource? Let's look at each one and the impact they have as an end user:

1. Fisheries: This constituency probably has the largest economic stake and is the largest consumer of the resource. Shipwrecks typically create habitats and reefs that are ideal homes for fishes, shrimps and mollusks of all types. These, in turn, are primary fishing areas for both commercial and sport fishermen. While the economic value of this resource is difficult to estimate, it is bound to be significant . While the long line and sportfishermen cause minimal damage to the sites, huge trawlers now comb the Continental shelves, inadvertently causing great potential damage to shipwrecks . These fishermen could well cause more damage to more maritime cultural sites in a year than all commercial salvage projects undertaken since the advent of the scuba regulator. Nevertheless, the economic impact of regulations designed to limit access to shipwrecks could have such a negative impact on this group that the needs of fishermen need to be seriously considered in the development of any shipwreck resource management policies.

The unfortunate reality is that with this constituency, there is no apparent "middle ground" between the needs of the fishermen who accidentally destroy shipwrecks in the pursuit of their catch and the archaeological community. Unlike sport divers or salvors, who can cooperate with archaeologists to glean as much data as possible from a shipwreck site, this simply isn't an option when a large trawler destroys a site.

Predicted Resource Utilization: The number of shipwrecks utilized or consumed by this group will be very hard to predict, since virtually all shipwrecks on the continental shelf offer some potential, or are in danger from trawlers. It is bound to be a huge percentage, however. As an example of the degree to which fisheries utilize this resource, it's well-documented that nearly all shipwrecks explored by archaeologists, salvors or sports divers were initially found by fishermen.

2. Sport divers: This group, along with the commercial businesses in the dive travel/tourism industry is a huge constituency of the shipwreck resource. With increasing diver awareness and regulatory pressure, divers are beginning to utilize shipwrecks in a manner that has minimal impact on the resource.

Predicted Resource Utilization: Sport divers will have minimum impact, because the vast majority of shipwrecks do not fulfill criteria necessary for access by sport divers (water clarity, shallow depth, easy access, etc.). While they may visit thousands of shipwrecks, and even loot them for souvenirs on a minor scale, there is a steady trend away from consuming the resource.

3. Salvors: While this group undoubtedly gets the most media attention as "consumers" of shipwrecks, it probably has less impact on the resource than either fishermen or sport divers. There are a number of criteria that are necessary for viable commercial exploration of a shipwreck that significantly limit the number shipwrecks that even qualify as potential commercial targets.

Most shipwrecks carried very little (if anything at all) of intrinsic value. Of those that did, most ran aground and were salvaged shortly thereafter. Of those that have high value potential and are potential candidates for commercial salvage, most were lost in deep water. This significantly increases the expense of search and recovery, which demands a large cargo of high intrinsic value to commercially justify the operation.

Of those that are sought commercially, virtually the same data can be acquired through careful excavation and documentation during the salvage process as would be saved through an academic archaeological expedition. While this has not happened very frequently in the past, there are a number of projects in recent years that illustrate the high quality of archaeological work that can be accomplished on a commercial operation.

From an economic standpoint, this constituency would fall far behind sport divers and fisheries. However, it is the group that garners the most headlines and the interest of the media, which is why its impact is so highly over-rated.

Predicted Resource Utilization: Based on extensive research within our own firm, we estimate the total number of previously unsalvaged shipwrecks lost with cargoes of high intrinsic value, with data that gives a some indication of their location to be less than 200 worldwide. The number of economically viable projects is probably much less than that, perhaps as few as 20 or 30. Not surprisingly, the press often gives a different picture, suggesting that there are thousands of potentially valuable shipwrecks. In truth the vast majority have no commercial value. Many "treasure hunting" expeditions are actually seeking shipwrecks with little or no commercial value, and rely on hyperbole and misinformation to lure investors to participate in their project.

4. Archaeologists: This group has the traditional moral imperative when it comes to historical shipwrecks. But as a constituency of the resource, how large an impact do they have?

One of the fathers of underwater archaeology, Peter Throckmorton, posed the following question: "What difference does Marine Archaeology make to our tired planet, other than giving pleasure to a few harmless eccentrics who might otherwise be developing the pitless peach or observing waterfowl? The answer, equally rudely put, is probably not much." He goes on to point out that no one is suggesting that archaeology is useless, however, in the critical assessment of resource allocation, it is reasonable to look at the net contribution to society as a whole, either aesthetically, economically, artistically or scientifically.

The role the archaeological community plays in the resource is undoubtedly important in helping mankind understand its own history and heritage. This prerogative is fulfilled by bringing the knowledge available from shipwrecks to the attention of the public and peers, not by preventing access. How many shipwrecks of the total universe should be allocated to add to our historical record? Certainly many, but the economics of excavating, conserving, studying and storing millions of shipwrecks is hard to even imagine. One of the biggest problems facing museums and institutions today is clearing out storerooms of unwanted materials.

There is, however, a minimal economic impact from this constituency. Unless the archaeological community decides that the sale of some types of artifacts from shipwrecks is allowed, each project will fill another store room and continue to incur conservation and storage costs. There are some institutions that are now looking at this issue in a new light, and the result may help some archaeological entities begin to generate sorely needed revenue.

Predicted Resource Utilization: This varies to a large degree based on which segment of the archaeological community you consult. The most conservative suggest that all shipwrecks over 100 years old should be the exclusive territory of the archaeological community and should go untouched by any other constituency. The more moderate archaeologists acknowledge the limited resources that are available for excavation, conservation and storage, and willingly admit that the resources should be shared.

5. Memorials/Heritage Sites: There are some percentage of shipwrecks that the public will want left alone as a memorial to those that lost their lives. It would be preferable that these sites not be disturbed by any of the other constituencies. Shipwrecks such as the Arizona, Titanic and Edmund Fitzgerald fall under this category. A standard for qualification as a memorial that has world-wide acceptance is going to be difficult to develop, but will be necessary in the future.

Predicted Resource Utilization: While difficult to estimate, it would be hard to imagine more than 100 of these sites that would be recognized internationally.

Resource Allocation Conclusions

What conclusions can we draw from this brief discussion of underwater cultural resource allocation? Shipwrecks designated as memorials and for commercial access are the easiest to quantify. If we estimate that less than a thousand shipwrecks of the total universe are allocated to these groups, this leaves the balance of millions available for fisheries, archaeologists and sport divers.

Sport divers are potentially the least destructive constituency of the resource, so while the shipwrecks they access may count in the thousands, their long-term impact is probably minimal.

But what of the nautical archaeologists and fishermen? Fisheries, with what is undoubtedly the largest commercial stake in the resource, will likely continue to be the largest constituency. Unfortunately, some techniques that are currently employed are possibly responsible for the most destruction of the shipwreck resource.

Is there a way to mitigate the destruction? It seems unlikely at this time, because the giant trawls are indiscriminate, and no amount of education can cause fishermen to avoid sites that are yet to be discovered. The destruction they cause goes largely unnoticed because there is no evidence available, save the occasional timbers or artifacts scooped up in trawl net.

Once a thorough analysis of the shipwreck issue is undertaken, the archaeological community will probably target certain methods employed by the fishing community, the only other constituency that cannot reasonably co-exist or find common ground in their utilization of the resource.

Instead of focusing energy on fighting salvors and sport divers, the archaeologists should consider banning together with these groups, who have mutual interests in the final disposition of shipwrecks. Together, they should seek to help fishermen find a way to minimize the destruction of historical shipwreck sites, perhaps by mapping sites so that they can be avoided. Unfortunately, the highly charged emotional outbursts that usually characterize the interaction make reasonable discussions difficult.


It is unlikely that the archaeological community will have any success in claiming the entire historical shipwreck resource as their exclusive territory and preventing access by all other constituencies.

Perhaps an alternative approach is to look at shipwrecks as we do any other resource in the world, recognizing that the many different users will need to compromise and recognize the rights of others to share in the resource.

These constituencies with a vested interest should join together and create a standard of ethics and accountability for dealing with historical shipwrecks, one that takes everyone's interests into account.

While people squabble over control of shipwrecks, nature, trawlers and pirates are gnawing away at these irreplaceable historical treasures. By creating a model that allows everyone to participate, we will all win.

©1998 Greg Stemm

Back To Greg Stemm's Articles Menu

Home | Contact Us | Sitemap | Privacy Policy | Careers