Differentiation of Shipwreck Artifacts as a Resource Management Tool

Association of Dive Contractors/Marine Technology Society
UI2000 Conference - January, 2000
by Greg Stemm

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.

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.



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 artifact



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 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 isn't available.

While this provision provides a good guideline, two additional factors help provide a workable model. The first is differentiation of artifacts based on economic versus archaeological value. The second is a mechanism for registration and documentation of articles that are sold.



One reasonable criterion for differentiating 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 justified as eligible for sale would be what 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, I have identified three other issues that may be useful in making this distinction. They are:

  1. The number of duplicates on site.
  2. The ease of recording or replicating the artifacts.
  3. Archaeological value versus value of return to stream of commerce.

1. 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, I recommend maintaining a minimum five to ten 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.

2. 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.

3. Archaeological value versus value of return to stream of commerce: 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.



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 their acquisition of an artifact, they should be able to indicate whether they want their name given out to bona fide archaeological and historical institutions. If not, they 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.



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.

©1999 Greg Stemm

Back To Greg Stemm's Articles Menu

Home | Contact Us | Sitemap | Privacy Policy | Careers