ImageJames Morrison takes CA inside the growing danger to maritime archaeology posed by private salvers – is there any 'middle ground'? When uniformed Spanish Civil Guard officers boarded a US-registered commercial archaeology vessel off Gibraltar in July 2007, amid rumours its crew were hiding the location of a £250 million hoard of gold and silver coins, the stage was set for a modern-day battle of high stakes on the high seas.

The tale of secrecy, confrontation and colonial-era wrecks heaving with bullion – revolving around a project codenamed ‘Black Swan’- seemed to contain all the elements of a classic treasure-hunt.

Yet beneath the excitable headlines that greeted the stand-off lurked a complex story with far-reaching, still unresolved, implications for how to deal with our underwater heritage. The decision of the Spanish authorities to commandeer Ocean Alert, one of two hi-tech deepwater boats operated out of Gibraltar by Florida-based private salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration, stemmed from an assertion that it was doing nothing more than safeguarding its sovereign cultural property.

The saga had first unfolded two months earlier, with Odyssey’s announcement that it was recovering a hoard of 500,000 coins, together weighing 17 tons, from a shipwreck at an undisclosed location in the Atlantic. The company maintained (and continues to do so) that the haul occurred beyond the territorial waters of any individual state, and that it had yet to determine the ship’s country of origin – thereby precluding any government from claiming ownership of it under current international law.

Initial mutterings suggested the wreck was that of the British ship Merchant Royal, which sank near the Isles of Scilly in 1641, loaded with gold, silver and jewels. But leaked information about the dating of some coins now suggests they were minted too late to have been carried on that ship, and the haul is more likely to have hailed from Spanish frigate Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, sunk by the British off Portugal in 1804.

The conflicting claims of Odyssey and the Spanish government are unlikely to be resolved before a series of tortuous court hearings, scheduled in both Spain and the United States for later this year.

Archaeology or treasure-hunt?

ImageDivisions in the debate are stark. ‘Treasure hunting isn’t archaeology,’ argues Joe Flatman, a lecturer in maritime and underwater archaeology at University College London. ‘Call it what it is: looting.’

George Lambrick, chairman of the Nautical Archaeology Society, who says: ‘Odyssey may well have some intention of making a decent archaeological record, but this doesn’t change the fact their main motivation is commercial. That isn’t consistent with good archaeological practice.’

Odyssey disputes this. Greg Stemm, its co-founder and co-chairman, dismisses academia’s scepticism about the motives and methods of private sector salvers as an ‘ugly prejudice’. He says: ‘To suggest the private sector does not have the desire nor the capability to provide for the proper recording, preservation, documentation and study of collections is an ugly prejudice that continues to be perpetuated by some that look on ‘collectors’ with condescension, while telling each other they are preserving cultural resources on behalf of unwashed masses – the ‘public’ – who must content themselves with gazing at that small percentage of pieces museums can afford to display.’

The salver's bottom line

Stemm points to the ‘high quality’ of Odyssey’s archaeological reports, post-excavation conservation techniques and activities in the field. He also cites a string of examples of public engagements, including a ‘major exhibit’ at the Florida Museum of Science and Industry; conference papers for the likes of the North American Society for Oceanic History; and the publication of mainstream books, such as Lost Gold of the Republic. Stemm argues that, while public archaeologists and politicians fiddle like so many Neros, our collective underwater heritage is increasingly vulnerable to all manner of destructive agencies, including oil exploration, pipelines, shrimping, and ‘grab bucket salvers’ with ‘no concerns for archaeology’ – from which Odyssey can help save them.

Such arguments just do not hold water for Dr Flatman.  ‘I have yet to see any evidence that any site looted by treasure-hunters anywhere in the world was under immediate threat of any kind, natural or cultural,’ he says. ‘The threat comes from treasure-hunters on sites that, if otherwise left alone, are usually in equilibrium. Many seabed deposits are in cold, dark, muddy circumstances with reduced oxygen levels, leading to a slowing of biological and other factors of decay.’

However, Alejandro Mirabal, company’s operations manager for Arqueonautus Worldwide, a private company based in Madeira, and resident marine archaeologist, says: ‘Archaeology is a research activity, a state of mind – investigation to better understand the past in order to better plan the future. As long as these principles are understood, there is no important difference if one expedition is financed by taxpayers or by private capital. What is important is that knowledge gathered during that research is made available to the largest amount of interested people possible. The rest is politics, and I’m not a politician.’

Like Stemm, he points to a growing body of excavation reports, which in Arqueonautus’s case can be downloaded from its website.

Yet some mainstream archaeologists remain wary – not least because of the increasingly lucrative uses to which commercial companies are putting their archaeological treasures. Among other projects, Odyssey has recently worked with Walt Disney Pictures, ‘providing authentic treasures’ and helping promote blockbuster films including Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

Is protection possible?

ImageWhat protections is afforded to the oceans' wrecks? At present, the only safeguard against the plundering of sites comes in the form of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This agreement enshrines the principle of ‘sovereign immunity’ in relation to all non-merchant flagged vessels. In theory, it guarantees ownership of such ships and their cargoes, wherever found, to their countries of origin.

Confusingly, UNCLOS also places on coastal states a duty to safeguard all wrecks located in their own ‘territorial waters’ (defined as stretching 12 nautical miles from their coastlines). It was this rule which induced Britain to pass the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act, under which 62 named vessels located at various points around its coast have since been designated. If, contrary to Odyssey’s assertions, the ‘Black Swan’ were not in international waters but within S
pain’s 12-mile zone, the Spanish government could file a claim to her under this.

Striking a deal

However, of the major maritime nations, only Spain and Portugal have so far signed. So, in the absence of a workable convention, where does this leave vulnerable underwater sites?

For Mike Williams at the University of Wolverhampton, the interim answer is for states with a shared interest in a site to enter into bilateral – or multilateral – deals. He cites the example of the Estonia, the cruiser that sank in the Baltic in 1994 with the loss of 852 lives. Since 1995, it has been protected by a treaty signed by Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Russia and Britain.

Is it possible to draw parallels with land-based archaeology, where there is a sharp division of law and practice between the Anglo-American tradition on the one hand, and the European/UNESCO traditions on the other? Europe and UNESCO tend to look for blanket prohibition of all forms of archaeology unless undertaken by the state; the Anglo-American tradition sees the state as having a more limited role, with archaeology being done mainly by outside bodies.

Here in Britain, the success of developerfunded archaeology and the Portable Antiquities Scheme has shown what can be achieved by such cooperation. Is it possible to apply some of these lessons of land-based archaeology in the maritime context?


This is a cut and condensed version of the article, to read more see Current Archaeology Issue 217

Source: James Morrison.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Copyright Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., unless otherwise indicated

PHOTOGRAPHY: Copyright Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., unless otherwise indicated


James Morrison

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