July 31, 2009 by David Gillaspie
Action words for researchers and treasure hunters came recently with news that “a handful of objects were taken out” of five Roman shipwrecks found in deep water. A handful? A sackful? A scoopful? It all means there’s more. And that‘s the problem.
Undersea exploration pits officially recognized archaeologists against sponsored scouts in a race through shared clues. The company man uses resources once unavailable to the other side. Now the lowered costs of advanced sonar and remote vehicles make deep water shipwrecks available to both.
What’s the difference between licensed explorers and treasure hunters? They both want the same thing: discover, stabilize, transport. Official explorations seek objects to weave into the rich fabric of human existence, information to share with the rest of the world.
A scout does the same, but for a smaller audience. A professional object hunter connects collectibles with collectors. Material destroyed by academics or grave robbers stays destroyed. Destroyed material cuts the rewards. One domino falling after another. You get fewer grants or sponsors if you make the sort of mistakes that trash the treasure.
Ocean currents pound shallow wrecks, leaving a wide trail of collectible material. In the busy shipping lanes across the Mediterranean the debris trails mix Deeper wrecks keep the original cargo together; they go down and stay down. And they are the target.
Is it fair to eliminate competition for exploration? Was the British Museum wrong to collect, stabilize, and transport the Elgin Marbles? Are they wrong now if they don’t return them? Would we know of the Elgin Marbles if they weren’t in a museum?
How do curators respond when they discover Nazi stolen art in their collections? Change the accession file to show an unknown donor? Wait for someone else to notice? Sell it on the side to an off-shore collector and file “LIC” lost-in-collection into the database?
Our native population demands a return of all ‘sacred objects,’ the stuff grave robbers dig up. Native tradition requires them to bury the sacred objects once returned. We know the Egyptians by their pyramids. Similar knowledge comes from other culture’s sacred objects. In a museum or in the ground is not an issue with the private collector. He’s the small audience and he’s not giving up anything he’s paid for.
During a conference on Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act a speaker mentioned twenty five hundred sacred sites in White Sands, New Mexico. Lists of sacred sites include The White Sands Dunes. A woman asked if the sacred sites are near the White Sands Missile Range.
“Yes they are,” the speaker said, “but that doesn’t diminish their importance.”
Decades of missile tests pulverizing the ground and everything on it turns the question into one of material or location. The answer is location because no treasure hunter worth his fee brings back sand. Sand isn’t as exciting to collectors as ceremonial burial garb. A showcase of sand in their private vault / gallery doesn’t stir the imagination.
Land exploration requires a different skill set than undersea archaeology. The land scout might pitch a tent on a site and look like a camper from all outward signs. Inside the tent he’s digging and sorting and packing his find. He needs to know how to drive, set up a tent, and dig with a shovel. He shares more specialized knowledge with fellow treasure hunters.
The costs of mounting undersea explorations demand tight research and high expectations for success. The undersea guy doesn’t leave the dock without knowing where he’s going. His ship won’t sail until all evidence points to one location. The water guy knows how to swim, dive, sail; how to tie knots, operate heavy equipment and high tech gear. Most important he knows how to plan.
Titanic is the biggest grossing movie of all time according to most records. More people paid more money to see Titanic than any other movie, which means we’ve all witnessed sonar and remote vehicles operating in an underwater salvage job.
Chances are good that both archaeologists and treasure hunters have seen Titanic. Is it a movie or a vocational film for that targeted group? The rest of us watch Kate Winslet while the geeks mimic the fat bearded guy running the controls on the remote rover.
Once treasure hunters master sonar, computer models, and remote vehicles, they will be more competitive. They will take the lead once they uncover the secrets of time travel; Titanic was a little sketchy on those details.
The race for treasure in deep water shipwrecks depend on research and equipment. When the equipment is equally available, research wins the day. Before you disagree ask this question: if you are building on potentially unstable ground, whose advice do you listen to, the geologist or the rock hound?
Now imagine you are a maritime collector with unlimited funds approached by two parties. Both convince you they know where the object of your current desire rests. Do you hire these guys, or Indiana Jones with a snorkel?