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Treasure hunting, looting, and the illicit trade in antiquities

Peter Campbell discusses the complex issues surrounding treasure hunting, looting, and the illicit trade in antiquities, in this article.
An operating table with bottles and other items on it, underwater.
© University of Southampton, 2017
“The Dramont wreck was dynamited by skin divers in 1957. A whole chapter in the history of navigation was blown to rubble by some mindless diver, perhaps hunting for nonexistent gold, destroying not from malice but stupidity, like a bored child spilling the sugar on a rainy afternoon. The glory of the world must indeed pass away, but it seems wrong to speed its passage with dynamite and sledgehammers.” – Peter Throckmorton
Little has changed since maritime archaeology pioneer Peter Throckmorton highlighted the senseless destruction of the Dramont wreck by treasure hunters. In a period when marine exploitation is killing off large quantities of marine species, exploitation in the form of the collection and sale of artefacts is quickly turning shipwrecks into endangered species as well. Here is why it doesn’t make sense and how it affects you.
Profit for some or education for all?
What is the difference between scientific and unscientific data collection? As previous sections have explored, archaeological context, or the connections between artefacts, is as important as the artefacts themselves. An artefact by itself may tell you where or when it was made, but its setting relative to other objects tells a more meaningful story. If someone gave you a glass bottle, what could you learn from it? It is made from glass, perhaps a year, and maybe where it was manufactured.
Look at the photograph above of the operating table on a sunken World War II ship. What do the glass bottles tell you? Together the artefacts and setting can tell a rich story, and separately they lose much of their meaning. While there are computer models to reconstruct artefact movement due to biological, physical, and chemical processes, nothing can reconstruct artefact movement by people. An artefact removed from context, even if returned years later, never has the same information as its original context.
In order to ensure scientific information is gather properly, archaeologists have ethical guidelines. These guidelines include recording context as well as a prohibition against selling artefacts. Why is this? For the same reason that doctors cannot get a financial reward for organ donations. A shipwreck is an archaeologist’s patient and in order to guarantee the best interest of our patient it is necessary to remove all conflicts of interest. If you are able to sell silver coins, would you spend an equal amount of time recording wooden timbers?
These ethics are for archaeologists, but other people are not bound to follow them. Treasure hunters, collectors, and tourists take artefacts because their compulsion is not science, but profit or interest in collecting. There are times when this is legal or illegal. Archaeologists support legislation that protects heritage as much as possible, but we understand that not everyone shares our ethical code. However, if you are an archaeologist or would like to become one, your ethical obligation to science supersedes the legal framework in any country – just as a doctor has an obligation to do what is best for their patient despite the differences in medical laws in many nations.
What happens if an archaeologist does not follow ethical guidelines? Then they are sanctioned, just like doctors or lawyers who have ethical breaches, and barred from professional memberships, publishing, conferences, and acquiring permits to excavate underwater. Professions, including archaeology, have ethics that supersede national laws to guarantee international standards that protect knowledge and people: be it a patient, defendant, or archaeological site.
The realities of treasure hunting and the antiquities trade
Treasure hunting is one of those romantic jobs with a harsh reality. Every child daydreams of sunken treasure, but treasure rarely pays off. In fact, it never has. Crunching the numbers of treasure hunting ventures, researchers have found that of the six major ventures all have likely lost money and all but one of the publicly traded treasure hunting companies is worth pennies. Unfortunately, treasure hunters salaries are guaranteed even if they find nothing, while investors do not see a return. In fact, there is no evidence investors received a return equal or more than their initial investment on the six largest ventures.
Beyond treasure hunting, the illegal looting of archaeological sites is a multi-billion dollar illicit trade that attracts some of the largest and most dangerous criminal groups. Artefacts that appear legitimate and for sale on eBay, in auction houses, and in stores are smuggled illegally from countries around the world and laundered onto the marker. Illicit antiquities contribute to funding the Taliban, ISIS, the Russian Mafia, and many other groups. Collecting artefacts is a fun hobby to connect with the past, but it can have serious unseen consequences.
Remember how archaeological ethics are in place to guarantee that all artefacts are recorded with the same attention as marketable artefacts? Well treasure hunting is profit-driven, so only sellable artefacts matter – not scientific information.
In 2007, salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration asked Spain for permission to salvage the ship Mercedes, which sank in 1804. Court records show that Spain explicitly told Odyssey to keep away from the wreck since it was Spain’s property. Odyssey went ahead and recovered tons of silver coins, stating they “discovered, at the site, a large field of artefacts including coins and other ship’s cargo, but no ship’s hull, ballast pile or keel which is typically associated with a shipwreck,” such as the Mercedes. According to Odyssey, the coins belonged to them because the site was not actually a shipwreck and therefore not Spain’s property. However, the court evidence showed otherwise.
“It is critical to keep in mind just how disingenuous Odyssey’s interrogatory answers were. No mention was made of the cannons, anchors, hull remains, hull sheathing and ballast that were in plain view in the photographs and videotapes that Odyssey had made at the site in April-May 2007. (Doc. 270 at 8-12). No mention was made of the blast damaged artefacts that were plainly visible on the seabed (Doc. 270 at 11) or the ‘blast damage’ coins in Gibraltar whose existence was concealed from Spain and the Court. After a year in which Odyssey had represented to Spain and the Court that there was nothing which would indicate the existence of ‘a particular ship, or, in fact, any ship at all,’ no mention was made of the fact that the coins all originated in the Americas and dated to 1804 or before, the seabed was littered with the copper and tin ingots listed on the Mercedes’ manifest and the highly distinct ‘canones bronzes inutiles’ on the Mercedes’s manifest were in plain sight. All of this ‘overwhelming evidence’ was in plain view in photographs and videotapes of the site that Odyssey took in April-May 2007 or, in the case of copper and tin ingots and coins, had also been in Odyssey’s physical possession for a year.” – Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., v. The Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel, Document 364
An identifiable shipwreck was present and contained a wealth of scientific information on trade, ship construction, and life at sea, but this was not recorded or it was hidden because it would prove Odyssey had disobeyed a direct order to keep away from Spain’s property. In the pursuit of profit, all professional and scientific protocols were set aside. This is the difference between for-profit salvage and scientific excavation – when your bottom line has to be met by selling parts of your subject then you cannot conduct proper scientific research. Once even a minor or duplicate artefact is able to be sold, then all artefacts begin to be treated subjectively.
As a postscript, the court ordered Odyssey to return all the artefacts to Spain and pay Spain’s court costs due to their behaviour. You can now see the artefacts on display in Spain’s National Underwater Archaeology Museum in Cartagena, though many artefacts and information on the ship’s wooden hull are lost forever somewhere off Gibraltar.
Treasure hunting has left investors empty handed and it does not provide science with any useable information. So if treasure hunting doesn’t make any money and it destroys science, does it deserve the romantic reputation that it has?
Small gains for a few; great losses for humanity
In May 2014, it was announced that the skeleton of a young woman found deep inside a Mexican cenote, or underwater cave system, had revealed astonishing results. Naia, as she was named by scientists, is the oldest human being ever found in North America at over 12,000 years old. Even more importantly, DNA shows Naia to be a direct ancestor of Native Americans today – a shock to everyone, as until now it was believed that Native Americans were part of a later migration from Asia and the earliest North Americans were composed of a tribe that disappeared long ago. The importance of Naia’s discovery cannot be understated and her skeleton is rewriting history books.
What was not discussed last May was that another Paleo-Indian skeleton, a young man, was stolen by divers in 2012 as a souvenir. What could he have taught us? Scientists suspect he is the same age or older than Naia and potentially push back the dates of the Bering Sea crossing several centuries. Now we will never know. Should this sort of information be deprived from all humanity so that a diver can have a skull on his desk? Governments are considering restricting access for cave divers to protect these historically important artefacts – why do a few bad apples feel as though they are more important than other divers?
Information is being lost on an even larger scale in the world’s oceans. Like the Dramont wreck described by Peter Throckmorton, most shipwrecks carried food or mundane cargo, but they are being destroyed in the search for valuable objects they never carried. A tiny fraction of shipwrecks contain anything of market value today, but countless are being ransacked in a search for profits that destroys their scientific value.
Is it acceptable to destroy scientific evidence so that a handful of individuals can search for immediate profits? Should international policy be written to suit the needs of a few in the present? Or should a more farsighted view of preserving information for humanity be undertaken? National laws are currently split between these options; this is a serious debate to consider.
Peter Campbell
© University of Southampton, 2017
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Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds: Maritime Archaeology

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