All Wet

Today’s NYT has a fascinating story on the recovery of some $500 mi18ship600.jpgllion in gold and silver coins from a colonial-era shipwreck in the Atlantic. The recoverer is Odyssey Marine Exploration, a publicly traded firm (AMEX: OMR). Odyssey made headlines a few years ago when it salvaged $75 million in coins from the Civil War-era shipwreck of the SS Republic off Savannah, Ga.

The Times notes that Odyssey’s latest find will fuel the already-bitter battle between “academic” and commercial marine achaeologists over treasure-hunting and recovery. The article includes this fusillade from the academics:

Kevin Crisman, an associate professor in the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M University, said salvage work on shipwrecks constituted “theft of public history and world history.”

He said the allure of treasure hidden under the sea seemed to blind the public to the ethical implications. “If these guys went and planted a bunch of dynamite around the Sphinx, or tore up the floor of the Acropolis, they’d be in jail in a minute,” Mr. Crisman said.

As a marine archaeology buff, I’ve eagerly followed the exploits of both academic archaeologists like Bob Ballard and treasure hunters like Mel Fisher. To be sure, the two groups operate differently — academics can pursue more scholarly study of their wrecks because they have the luxury of government and/or foundation funding for their work, while commercial archaeologists must please their investors, who want financial returns and/or the joy of recovering and owning pieces of history.

With that distinction made, I have to say that Crisman should go soak his head. Odyssey’s latest find and Mel Fisher’s Atocha salvage work most certainly are not thefts of “public” or “world” property because neither the public nor the world owns the wrecks. If a ship is lost outside of territorial waters then, at best, the ship’s original owner or insurer owns the wreck, and it often is the case that no one legally owns a wreck until someone discovers and begins working it. (There sometimes are bitter legal fights between the ship’s owner, insurer, and the wreck’s discoverer when a discovery is made.) Chrisman’s comparing Odyssey’s discovery and salvaging of its latest wreck to the destruction of properties like the Sphinx or Acropolis is all wet.

Just as important, commercial incentives motivate the discovery of wrecks and the advance of marine archaeology. (Indeed, why didn’t the academics beat Odyssey to the Republic or Fisher to the Atocha?) It took Fisher more than a decade of searching to find the wreck of the Santa Margarita, and another five years to find her sister ship, the Atocha. To recover artifacts from wrecksites, Fisher invented a simple yet ingenious device, the “mailbox,” to pump clear water into the site to improve visibility and sweep away sand that covers the wreck. And, using money from his share of the more than $400 million recovered from the Santa Margarita and Atocha, Fisher financed other expeditions and established a nonprofit maritime heritage museum. Crisman’s dismissal of treasure hunters and commercial archaeologists as being irresponsible yahoos who care only about riches seems little more than academic snobbery.

Moreover, Crisman’s portrayal of academic archaeologists as selfless scholars who protect history and advance the public’s interest is bilgewater. Academic archaeologists love working wrecks as much as treasure seekers do — the joy of finding and exploring wrecks, harvesting artifacts, and holding history in their hands. Just like treasure hunters, the academics want legal protections to ensure that only they can salvage from the wrecks they discover, and they squirrel away the salvaged artifacts in their offices and labs. One day, perhaps, those artifacts will be put on display so the public can look but not touch, but how is that much different than Mel Fisher’s museum or the selling of artifacts to private collectors who often then put the artifacts on display?

There certainly is room in marine archaeology for both the treasure hunters and the academics. But there isn’t room for the elitist attitude that only academic archaeologists should have the right to touch history and commercial ventures are equivalent to destroying the Acropolis.