Mutiny over the bounty

July 16, 2003

WITHIN months, a robotic submarine will slip into the Mediterranean Sea to start excavating a wreck believed to be that of HMS Sussex, a British warship that sank off Gibraltar in 1694. The Sussex sank carrying gold coins that today could be worth $4 billion.

The event will mark the beginning of a controversial collaboration between commercial shipwreck salvagers, marine archaeologists and the British government that highlights the long-standing enmities between scientists and those they disparagingly call "treasure hunters".

According to the archaeologists, the commercial exploitation of wrecks is ravaging a priceless cultural heritage that lies undiscovered beneath the oceans. They say such operations destroy key archaeological evidence before it can be studied. The so-called treasure hunters insist that without their money and expertise, many wrecks would not be discovered or explored in the first place. And they can even help deter unprofessional looters.

Shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites have traditionally had little or no protection compared with their counterparts on land. For gold and other riches buried in old shipwrecks it has been a case of finders keepers. The plunder reached a peak in the 1980s. "You had a bit of a gold rush off the coast of Florida, with folks going down dumping out jars in search of gold or silver, blasting sites to see if there was gold and moving on," says maritime archaeologist James Delgado, who directs the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Canada.

In an effort to stop this pillage, delegates from 87 countries met in 2001 to agree the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This bans trade in artefacts from shipwrecks or other underwater sites more than 100 years old and sets out a guide to good practice that marine excavations should follow. The convention will come into force when 20 nations have ratified it, but so far only one country, Panama, has done so.

Commercial excavators and recreational divers argue that the convention is too restrictive. "To arbitrarily say something a hundred years of age or older cannot be bought, sold or traded is ridiculous," says Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, the Florida-based company that is planning to excavate the wreck of the Sussex. "If a ship sank in 1900 and it was carrying 50,000 bricks, should all 50,000 of those bricks be put in a museum?"

But the Sussex itself is clearly a different matter. Two years ago, Stemm's company discovered what is believed to be the wreck of the Sussex lying nearly 1000 metres below the surface. Under international law the ship is still owned by the British government, which has agreed to allow the company to excavate it using approved archaeological techniques. If the wreck is the Sussex, the company and the government will divide the gold and other artefacts according to a pre-arranged formula: giving Odyssey 80 per cent of the first $45 million, half of the excess to $500 million, and 40 per cent of the remainder.

The arrangement should benefit both sides, says Stemm. The government and archaeologists can make use of Odyssey's technical expertise in mounting a meticulous deep-water archaeological excavation, museums will get many new artefacts, and Odyssey and its shareholders will get a fat profit. "We just don't buy the idea that good science cannot be done in parallel with profit," says Stemm. "If the public sector had the funds to do it, they would already be doing it."

But most archaeologists are appalled by the concept. "It doesn't happen on land," says Edward Harris, executive director of the Bermuda Maritime Museum. "The Egyptians aren't going to let someone come in and divide the spoils. There's no reason to allow it under the ocean." Commercial collaborations may even help to maintain a market for shipwreck artefacts, encouraging further excavations, says Margaret Leshikar-Denton, a nautical archaeologist at the Cayman Islands National Museum.

Another danger is that less reputable commercial operations will be tempted to cut corners. "Archaeology is not cheap," says Delgado. "If you're a group of private investors and you just want gold, are you going to undertake the very costly and expensive steps to preserve this or that? There is a consensus among archaeologists that with a profit motive, science is going to take the back seat."

Under ethical guidelines adopted by the International Congress of Maritime Museums and the Council of American Maritime Museums, member museums are banned from displaying artefacts from commercial excavations. Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, believes such a ban would apply to artefacts from the Sussex. But if a commercial excavation adheres to archaeological standards, much of the ethical problem may disappear, says Delgado.

Sometimes, commercial excavations may be the only realistic way to preserve any knowledge from a wreck. Countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, are rich in shipwrecks but have minuscule budgets for official excavation work. As a result, many are being looted, according to Michael Flecker, a commercial archaeologist based in Singapore. Selling artefacts can provide an incentive to excavate the wreck before looters destroy it and its associated archaeological information.

The argument will be settled if and when the UNESCO convention comes into force, as it explicitly bans the commercial exploitation of shipwrecks. That is unlikely to happen any time soon, however. Several key coastal nations, notably the US, the UK and France, refused to sign the convention on the grounds that it extends national jurisdiction further out to sea than the limits defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and also threatens their right to absolute control over the wrecks of their warships.

Many countries already have national laws that protect shipwrecks within their territorial waters from looters. But their failure to ratify the agreement could still cause immense problems.

Signatories to the convention must promise to police activities by ships flying their flag or that dock at their ports. But if other nations have refused to sign, salvagers will just take their booty there, says Sarah Dromgoole, a maritime law expert at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Without the convention, wrecks in international waters will remain vulnerable- especially those in deep water. "The destruction of underwater heritage is enormous," says Harris. "It's getting worse, because the salvors have got new technology that allows them to dive deeper, to detect and find shipwrecks that have not previously been found."
By: Bob Holmes

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New Scientist issue: 19th July 2003

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