The Artifact Debate - Part II

UnderWater Magazine - January/February, 2000
by Greg Stemm

In Part I of this two part series (UnderWater, Fall 99), Greg Stemm discussed the current debate between archaeologists and commercial shipwreck explorers over access to shipwrecks, focusing on the primary unresolved issue between the two groups: the sale and disposition of shipwreck artifacts. Stemm introduced the idea that development of a model dividing artifacts into two categories, based on their economic vs. archaeological value, may provide common ground. The Professional Shipwreck Explorers Association (ProSEA) already provides for this solution in its Code of Ethics, but further development of a model for artifact differentiation may provide a basis for policy implementation by Underwater Cultural Resource Managers.

As technology provides access to hundreds of thousands of shipwrecks on the ocean floor, a critical policy issue has developed for Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) resource managers. Some in the "Preservation" community simply want the shipwrecks left alone. This is like leaving the remains of a 150-year-old Conestoga wagon on the side of a remote back road and hoping that no one will pick it clean for souvenirs, and at the same time praying that it will not deteriorate any further. Now multiply that times hundreds of thousands of different sites - all in an area that is virtually impossible to monitor or police - and you have a better perspective on the shipwreck resource management challenge.

The archaeological community doesn't have the resources to keep up with the shipwreck discoveries that are being made regularly by fishermen, divers, and even oil and fiber optic oceanographic service companies. One solution to this challenge is to encourage commercial shipwreck exploration in a manner that is consistent with archaeological principles. In theory, the actual excavation, recovery, and conservation work can be done as well by a commercial firm as by a non-profit or educational institution. On land sites, commercial "salvage archaeology" firms are employed on a regular basis when construction projects find themselves faced with an archaeological site in the middle of their development. This is not only accepted practice, but provides a large number of jobs to archaeologists who otherwise would never find a position in the field.

Why can't this same model apply to shipwrecks? The real point of contention is the ultimate disposition of artifacts from the site. If the commercial firm were to develop a mechanism for keeping the entire collection together, it would probably remove the concerns of all but the most recalcitrant archaeologists.

Alternatively, it may be useful to develop a mechanism for dividing artifacts into two different groups, one that must be kept together for study, and another that is considered of minimal archaeological significance and therefore available for sale.

Artifact differentiation: a case for two categories

One reasonable criterion for differentiating shipwreck artifacts would be to distinguish between "Trade Goods" and "Cultural Artifacts." While this is, to some extent, an artificial distinction, it provides a starting point for classifying artifacts according to their archaeological significance to a cultural assemblage.

One of the principle justifications for a class of artifact that could be eligible for sale might be called "Trade Goods." On a shipwreck site, there is a relatively distinct division that encompasses all artifacts that represent the ship itself, life aboard the ship, defense of the ship, and construction and navigation of the ship. These can be differentiated from the goods that were being transported on the ship as cargo or freight, or within the luggage of passengers for trade. With the possible exception of data relating to the packing and loading of these goods, the cargo itself is incidental to the maritime and nautical knowledge that can be gained from the excavation of the shipwreck site.

Trade Goods are also often characterized by large quantities of similar or duplicate items that have been mass-produced with the original goal of trade and dispersion of these artifacts. Their inclusion in the assemblage is a result of a simple twist of fate, not a clue to the shipboard culture. In other words, sale of artifacts from this collection would be a continuation of the original intent of the owners, as opposed to the shipboard artifacts, which are the remaining evidence of shipboard life prior to the disaster - or perhaps clues to the disaster itself. While cargo, freight, or trade status in and of itself does not necessarily justify separation from the cultural collection of a shipwreck site, three other issues may be useful in making this distinction. They are: the number of duplicates on site, the ease of recording or replicating the artifacts, and archaeological value versus value of return to stream of commerce.

Number of duplicates on site

This is simply an evaluation of the number of artifacts of that particular type available from the site. Based on discussions with museums and archaeologists, the author recommends maintaining a minimum five- to 10-percent sample of the multiple artifacts in the permanent cultural collection. In addition to considering the number of similar pieces on the site, it might also prove useful to consider the number of similar pieces available in other collections throughout the world. If the piece is ubiquitous and virtually identical pieces can be easily found for study, the value of keeping them together may be negligible.

Since these criteria are all subjective, the final evaluation should be left to the project archaeologist. A specific set of guidelines for establishing parameters for these criteria should be clearly delineated in writing prior to beginning any project and agreed to by the project archaeologist, the project manager, and any other decision makers that have a hand in deciding the ultimate fate of the artifacts. This agreement should be part of the project archaeologist's employment contract, and a non-confrontational mechanism for resolving disputes should be clear. This agreement should also be an amendment to any permits or licenses with the government or authority which authorizes the project.

Ease of recording or replicating artifacts

In the ProSEA Code of Ethics, it states that those artifacts that cannot be "documented, photographed, molded, or replicated in a manner that allows reasonable future study and analysis" must be kept together. An obvious example of an artifact that is easily documented is a coin, which can be easily photographed in high resolution, weighed and the dimensions given, thus providing virtually all the data necessary for further study of the coin.

The one exception would be an analysis of the metal in the coin, but that can be accomplished, for the most part, from the sample collection of similar coins from the same site in the permanent collection. This concern is the reason that it is important to maintain a sample collection of even the most common trade artifacts.

Archaeological versus commercial value

For centuries, salvage law has sought to promote the return of valuable goods to the stream of commerce by allowing a lien enforceable in admiralty court against salvaged property. One concern of archaeologists today is that the potential cultural value should be considered in determination of economic value. How then to decide which value is greater? And to what degree? The answer is not simple, and is a subjective judgement. It can probably best be illustrated by the following example.

Consider the case of 1,000 similar gold coins recovered from a shipwreck from the late 18th Century. In this instance, the market value of those coins could easily reach millions of dollars. In terms of the archaeological value, there are many of the same coins already widely circulated throughout the coin collectors marketplace, so there is very little that can be learned incrementally about 18th Century culture that can't be learned from records and data which are already in existence. This is especially true when coupled with a representative sample, plus photos and documentation, of the coins that are dispersed.

In this case, a reasonable conclusion could be drawn that the tiny incremental value of the archaeological knowledge that could be gained from keeping the collection together does not warrant preventing a return of millions of dollars to the stream of commerce.

On the other hand, a large collection of amphorae from a Mediterranean bronze-age site would probably not have a very significant intrinsic value. However, so little is known of trade from this era that minor variations in markings on the amphorae, as well as data that can be gleaned from the remains of their contents, may be data that can be gathered by no other method. In this case, a reasonable conclusion could be drawn that the low commercial value would not warrant breaking up the collection. These provide relatively simple examples, and a set of guidelines should be developed from which the project archaeologists can help make that determination on a case-by-case basis. These guidelines should also rely on input from the country or cultures that have a vested interest in the collection.

The guidelines will vary from one shipwreck to another, so it might be advisable to create an advisory board comprised of archaeologists, historians and curators who would make a recommendation for development of the guidelines for each project.

Registration and documentation

One additional consideration in allowing the sale of artifacts would be to minimize loss of access to the dispersed pieces by keeping track of their ultimate disposition. This would serve to provide some access to the artifacts even though they have been sold.

ProSEA is currently preparing plans for an artifact registry and database which will be made available to its members. When a commercial explorer has permission from the project archaeologist to sell a collection of trade goods, the company will submit that opinion to ProSEA, along with a proposal for the documentation of the artifacts.

ProSEA proposes to register all those articles in a database, along with their photos and supporting documentation, including in situ photos and data relating to their precise location on the site. There may be a slight fee associated with the registry to offset the costs to the non-profit association, although it is also envisioned that these costs may be supported by grants.

When those registered artifacts are sold, the seller and buyer will record the transaction on the Internet through the Registry Website and the buyer will receive new certification in his or her name.

ProSEA is relying on "enlightened self-interest" for this process to work. The artifact registration process will serve to guarantee that the artifact was recovered legally and in compliance with archaeological standards, as well as serve to provide archaeological data. This will undoubtedly increase the value of the piece from both a commercial and an archaeological standpoint, ensuring the continued access to provenience data each time the title is transferred. The net result will be that each successive buyer will be motivated to register the transaction. As an added benefit, this database will also be made available to the archaeological and historical community. If a researcher wants to study the documentation of all the coins found on a site, they will be able to access the database directly. If they really need to see an individual coin for their research, the owner can be found through the registry. Ironically, this may serve to make the data from the dispersed artifacts more accessible than those lying in some museums and public collections. Institutions' valuable collections are sometimes difficult to access for a variety of reasons, including security, lack of personnel for assistance, and sometimes simply misplaced or lost collections.

There are, of course, privacy issues. When someone registers his acquisition of an artifact, he should be able to indicate whether he wants his name given out to bona fide archaeological and historical institutions. If not, he can be contacted privately through the registry, and the name of the researcher given to the owner to initiate contact. Further study of any of the artifacts will only enhance their value, and for this reason alone they will probably be made available for study upon request. Although this will probably not allow access to 100 percent of the artifacts, I believe that there will be a high percentage of the artifacts available to researchers through this method. For those that are not available directly, there will at least be photos, measurements, and other documentation that can be accessed through the registry.

A workable solution

While development of a workable artifact differentiation model presents some great challenges, it promises to be one basis for resolving the great debate that is raging over the disposition of underwater cultural heritage. Any model for resolving the differences between the commercial and academic constituencies of the shipwreck resource will need to be evolutionary. It is hoped that these concepts will be considered in permits or licenses granted to commercial shipwreck explorers so that they can be tested and improved with use. UW

Greg Stemm is the co-founder of Odyssey Marine Exploration and President of the Professional Shipwreck Explorers Association. He has authored many articles and lectured extensively on deep ocean shipwreck exploration. Greg 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.

©2000 Greg Stemm

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