A Mid-Ocean Meeting of the Minds

UnderWater Magazine - July, 2001
by Greg Stemm

As we approach what could be the final negotiation for the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage this July, I thought it might be interesting to set forth my observations from our expedition in the Mediterranean. After all, what we are negotiating in Paris is intended to create a set of rules and framework meant to supervise exactly the type of shipwreck exploration work that we are conducting. I am out here for the month of May, and will be returning in June to head back to the next round of UNESCO meetings.

The contrast couldn't be any greater. Less than two months ago, I was in Paris where we were still negotiating the UNESCO Convention. Today I am writing aboard the research vessel RV Minibex in the Mediterranean, and we are performing a preliminary archaeological survey of a Colonial shipwreck nearly 3,000 feet below.

In Paris, the negotiations have been characterized by scores of different special interest groups, each trying to promote a compromise to suit their private agendas. It wasn't unusual for some of these misplaced priorities to cause delegates to completely overlook the impact on shipwrecks and the actual management of underwater cultural heritage. My guess is that the vast majority of the delegates in the plenary session in Paris have never even seen an operation like this first hand, so they are reduced to negotiating on the basis of what they imagine occursor worse, making decisions based on misinformation.

The ongoing negotiations at UNESCO are complicated by many different languages being spoken. It's not just the semantics that cause problems, communications are also confounded by the cultural differences that are more difficult to translate. Aboard the ship, we have a scientific and technical crew composed of individuals from France, Spain, England, Algeria, Scotland, Canada, the United States and even California. Some of the French don't speak English, and none speak Spanish. One English speaker speaks Spanish, but no Americans speak French. Our archaeologist, Neil Cunningham Dobson, speaks Scottish, which sometimes appears to be a language unto itself. And Californian, well, that speaks for itself. So our operational meetings often take on an interesting multi-national character, with individuals translating important concepts across the table as necessary, in the languages that they can manage.

There is no simultaneous translation facility on the ship, like there is at UNESCO, but communication is much more efficient here because we have a common goal, and one agenda. Even though the exploration of this site is a project financed by Odyssey, the archaeologist is running it. Neil has final say on the site, not because we are required to give him control, but because this is an archaeological operation, albeit commercial. This "private sector archaeology" scenario has been criticized at UNESCO as impractical (at best) and oxymoronic (at worst). I've heard many times that archaeology and business simply can't coexist, but we are out here proving that they can - and thrive through the synergy of the two approaches.

The greatest irony, I have realized, is that once we are all out here offshore, the process works much better than the process that presumes to tell us how we should be running this operation.

This particular operation incorporates many of the most complex issues being negotiated - jurisdiction, permitting, warships and even boundary disputes. Nevertheless we have found a way to bring all interested parties together in a mutually beneficial operation.

Our task this week was to carefully investigate a Colonial site we located during our earlier side scan survey. In order to identify the age, nationality and (hopefully) the name of the ship, we needed to map the site, and recover a few artifacts that could help give us this information. One of the artifacts we decided to attempt to bring up, after considerable discussion and debate, was one of the cannon. These are typically not very useful in identifying a site, because over the years, ships could pick up cannon to replace lost or damaged ones, and they could be older or younger than the ship, or even captured cannon from different countries. In this case, however, the ship we hope we have found was only launched three months prior to its loss, and will certainly have all the guns with which it was commissioned. Gunner's marks or other identifying symbols could very well tell us which ship this was from.

Lifting a cannon from this depth would typically not be a very big deal, but in this case, we were doing it with a very small inspection ROV. This impressive little unit, Comex's Achilles, is not much bigger than your microwave oven, but the folks at Comex have developed some great tooling, and during the past couple years that we have used it, we have never seen a system failure. Comex's crewmembers on this expedition with us are lead by Nicolas Vincent, a protg of our friend Henri Delauze, founder of Comex. Unfortunately Henri cannot be with us for this project, as he was last year, because he is launching his beautiful new catamaran research vessel Jannus this week.

Last week, we spent several hours with the ROV on the site, providing Neil his first real time glimpse of the shipwreck. He directed the pilot around the site, taping the areas that he wanted to document to develop his plan. In the interim, he made a map of the site, indicating the areas he wanted to explore further, and noted those cannon that would be the easiest to recover.

The morning we planned the cannon recovery, the operational meeting featured a presentation by Neil to the ROV and rigging crew indicating the best approach to recovery. The easiest cannon to rig for recovery unfortunately was not the best from an archaeological standpoint, because it was in the middle of the site. Its removal might have caused a hole that could affect the disposition of other artifacts on the site, so we agreed to put the extra effort into recovering one of the guns on the outer edge of the site. It would prove to be much more complicated, but was better archaeological technique.

The thing that struck me about this aspect of our planning meeting was that it completely contradicted the scenarios that have been predicted at the UNESCO meetings. These dire warnings suggested that archaeological interests would be run over roughshod in the interest of cost management. What these theoretical scenarios failed to take into account is that when you have the entire team focused on one goal, the different perspectives don't cause a problem, they add to the well-considered solution to technological challenges.

The ROV pilot isn't just thinking about his ROV, he is listening to the archaeological perspective. The project archaeologist is considering constraints and benefits of the technology. The guy with the checkbook wants to make sure that everything is done efficiently, but the cost is just one more consideration. The financing is like gasoline in a car. You won't get anywhere without it, but without the car, the gas is useless. Every archaeological excavation run by a University or Government has the same financial constraint. No one does it for free, and money is never limitless.

Neil mused one afternoon about the project and how it would be viewed by the archaeological community.

"Any serious archaeologist would give his eye teeth to be out here right now directing this type of operation," Neil told me. "They may not admit it publicly, but there's no question about it. This expedition provides technological capability that archaeological institutions could only wish for".

I only hope that next month's UNESCO meeting produces a Convention that encourages projects like this.

We'll see.

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.

©2001 Greg Stemm

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