The Shipwreck Dilemma

UnderWater Magazine - Fall, 1999
by Greg Stemm

Like pirates dividing up the loot, underwater archaeologists and treasure hunters are at odds over how to disperse items discovered in shipwrecks. In the first of a two-part series, Greg Stemm tackles the question: Who gets the artifacts?

Management of Underwater Cultural Resources, especially historical shipwrecks, has become a major resource management issue in recent years. With the advent of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, and UNESCO's move to create the Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, significant international attention has been drawn to this issue (for more information, see "United Nations Proposes Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage" in the Winter 1999 issue of UnderWater).

Until recently, the battle lines in the public debate have been clearly drawn. On one side have been the treasure hunters, who have been painted as modern-day pirates pillaging shipwrecks for their own selfish gain with no concern for the archaeological record. In the other corner are the archaeologists, who have tried to claim the bailiwick as their own, maintaining that historical shipwrecks should be the exclusive domain of their field.

Common Ground

Times have changed. Most salvors now willingly employ archaeologists to supervise their projects. Contrary to the cynical claims of some, this has probably resulted from enlightened self-interest rather than a public relations ploy. Adherence to strict archaeological guidelines reaps financial rewards for the salvor, enhancing the value of the artifacts, media rights, and public acceptance. It also provides for wider acceptance and justification for commercial access in the eyes of the judges who oversee the salvor's rights under Admiralty law.

At the same time, the archaeological community has seen the need to show more business acumen to realize the funding requirements of their own expeditions. The old argument that shipwreck sites have been permanently stabilized and their only danger is from treasure hunters has, to a large extent, been abandoned as we've learned that fisheries, sport divers, and mother nature herself take a huge toll on these sites. Shipwrecks, such as the Resurgam, Monitor, and Titanic, that have been monitored carefully over the past decade have shown the terrible deterioration that takes place on these sites.

As a general rule, the two schools of thought appear to be finding common ground. Commercial explorers are participating in archaeological conferences and archaeologists are finding an expanding job market in commercial shipwreck exploration. If one imagines a model expedition where commercial funding, technology, and expertise lend a hand to an archaeological excavation overseen by an academic institution, you would think that this would be an ideal solution for everyone.

Unfortunately, there is one issue that still begs a solution, and provides a challenge to creating a mutually acceptable situation. That question is: Who gets the artifacts?

The Artifact Dilemma

Typically, the argument over artifact disposition tends to lump all shipwreck artifacts together into one category. This, in spite of the fact that artifacts can range from pieces of coal that can add virtually nothing to the archaeological record to organic remains and personal possessions that can rewrite the historical and archaeological record.

In developing a solution to one of the last remaining barriers to commercial/academic cooperation, it may be useful to consider defining different categories of artifacts; a) those whose economic value outweighs their archaeological significance, and b) those whose archaeological importance should preclude sale or dispersal.

Developing a model that recognizes multiple categories of artifacts may also prove useful to the government agencies that are responsible for walking the narrow line between commercial exploration and archaeological sensitivity. Torn between preventing commercial access (which smacks of interference with property rights) and the destruction of cultural heritage, nations are often locked in a policy of inaction. This might be acceptable if trawlers, pirates, and nature weren't taking their toll on these sites every day, but they are.

The ProSEA Model - A Workable Solution?

The Professional Shipwreck Explorers Association resulted from the merger of two organizations, the Deep Shipwreck Explorers Association and the Historical Shipwreck Salvors Association. Both these groups were formed with the idea that a professional association of commercial shipwreck explorers could create order and bring legitimacy and accountability to an otherwise fragmented industry in its infancy.

The initial members of ProSEA included some of the world's leading underwater contractors, including Comex and Oceaneering, as well as commercial exploration firms such as Nauticos and Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Among the many initiatives of this organization was the creation of a Code of Ethics which was designed to govern the activities of members. New members were required to agree to abide by the Code of Ethics, and any member who violated the Code would lose his membership in the organization. The organization's by-laws include a detailed process for reporting violations and filing grievances as well as an appeals process.

The Code of Ethics itself covers many different subjects, ranging from archaeological protocols to business conduct, but one provision in particular has direct bearing on the sales of artifacts. Section 8 of the Code of Ethics reads as follows:

Article 8. Members agree to hold out for sale only those artifacts that have been subjected to thorough study and investigation by the Project Archaeologist. Those items that are deemed to be of irreplaceable archaeological value, and which cannot be documented, photographed, molded or replicated in a manner that allows reasonable future study and analysis, should be kept together in a collection which is available for study by legitimate researchers.

This article is intended to address the archaeological community's valid concern that irreplaceable artifact collections should not be broken up in a manner that prevents future study. Providing for artifacts to be "documented, photographed, molded, or replicated in a manner that allows reasonable future study and analysis" before any transfer of title provides for a reasonable compromise, since it provides most of the data that can be gleaned from the artifact, even if the artifact itself is not available.

While this provision provides a good guideline, in the next issue we will examine two additional factors in providing a workable model; differentiation of artifacts based on economic versus archaeological value, and a mechanism for registration and documentation of articles that are sold. UW

Greg Stemm is the co-founder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, a publicly-traded company engaged in the business of locating and recovering deep ocean shipwrecks. He directed the team that accomplished the world's first deep archeological excavation, at a depth of 1,500 feet, and has authored many articles and lectured extensively on deep ocean shipwreck exploration. Greg is currently President of the Professional Shipwreck Explorers Association and can be contacted by phone at (813) 876-1776 or email at: email Greg Stemm.

UnderWater Magazine is the bimonthly journal of the Association of Diving Contractors International, Inc. It is published by Doyle Publishing Company for the commercial diving, ROV, and underwater industries. Entire contents © 1993 - 1999 Doyle Publishing Company. Reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission is prohibited.

©1999 Greg Stemm

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