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Shipwreck Salvage - Treasure Hunters vs. Archaeologists

Amphoras, sherds, shipwreck salvage, and the underwater archaeology of ancient shipwrecks

Related Resources
Robert Ballard - Shipwreck Enthusiast

From Other Guides
Underwater Archaeology
Links to sites on underwater archaeology from About Guide, Kris Hirst.

Online References
[ URL = www.imacdigest.com/wrecking.html ]Wrecking Diving
Rights of the salvors vs US Government confiscation.
[ URL =www.imacdigest.com/unesco.html ]Legalized Plunder?, by Peter Hess
A Critique of UNESCO's International Convention On Underwater Cultural Heritage.
[ URL = www.imacdigest.com/future.html]The Future of Historical Shipwreck and Salvage
Urges responsible behavior on the part of salvors.
"[Salvors] must begin to realize that we do have a responsibility to ensure that our recovery efforts meet certain minimum standards that will preserve our cumulative collected on site data, historical research and reasonable representative collections of recovered treasures and artifacts, so that future generations can share in the excitement, adventure and knowledge that we are fortunate enough to be involved in recovering."

Dateline: 10/20/98

If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons,
And buccaneers, and buried gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today:
--So be it, and fall on!

- R.L. Stevenson, Treasure Island

Soupy Sales was fired for asking his youthful viewers to waste their parents' money, so I want to make it perfectly clear: Don't get any ideas. Just take my word for it. Breaking a vase is no big deal -- historically speaking, of course.

Although they weren't simply graceful containers for floral arrangements, we tend to think of them as vases, but they're called amphoras and were more like Tupperware. The standard storage and carrying container of antiquity, they came in many sizes for different purposes. Some tops were designed for stacking. Unlike Tupperware, they were also decorative, breakable, and often very large.

I say it's not a tragedy to have a broken amphora -- because the sherds can be processed for dating and reassembled to show what the original looked like -- but obviously it's even better when it comes through the ages intact. And for those who troll for ancient treasure, the value of the artifact isn't in the stories it tells, but in the price it fetches. For them a cache of intact amphoras is a godsend.

As William J. Broad says in his October 12 NY Times article, "Deep-Sea Clues to an Ancient Culture Discovered," Florida-based entrepreneurs looking for gold and silver in the Mediterranean uncovered a pristine shipwreck buried a half mile underwater containing many whole amphoras.

"The ancient wreck was found Sept. 17. The overall [URL = www.shipwreck.net/images/new/melkmap.jpg] site, nearly 3,000 feet down, was measured as about 50 feet long and 25 feet wide, with at least 200 amphoras visible above the mud."
It takes the new technology made famous by Dr. Ballard's explorations to go a half mile down. Such deeply buried sites are better preserved than ones reclaimed earlier.
"Deep water sites are not subjected to wave action and turbulence, where moving sand and grit abrade artifacts. In addition, extreme atmospheric pressure, cold and constant temperatures, reduced oxygen and sea life, and darkness combine to form a unique environment that better preserves organic material. At nearly 3,000 feet, it is also virtually certain that the shipwreck has remained undisturbed."
- [www.shipwreck.net/members/whyimportant.ASP] [shipwreck.net/melkarth.html] Odyssey

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, marine archaeologists concluded the ship is probably Phoenician, from the fifth century B.C. -- the oldest shipwreck ever found.

"Over the ages, amphora styles changed from region to region, aiding their dating and identification today. Experts say the newly discovered ones are clearly rare, half body and half neck, with small, ear-shaped handles."
Why did archaeologists only look at a videotape and not the actual wreckage? They may yet have the oportunity, but there's an unresolved conflict between treasure hunters (sometimes called salvors) and archaeologists. Businesses need to make profits, while archaeologists are committed to making their discoveries available for research.
"For archaeology to be truly useful, we need to write the stories, and the audience must include the scientific community, the subject peoples or their descendants, and, most particularly, the general public."
- Kris Hirst
The advent of the new expensive technology makes cooperation with business interests more attractive. William Murray, chair of the underwater archaeology committee of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), urged his colleagues to proceed with the venture. But an archaeologist on the [www.abwillms.demon.co.uk/vikkula/subarch.html] Sub-Arch listserv quipped
"Do you think the AIA is going to blackball itself after recommending co-operation with the salvors (who admit that they want to make a profit)?"
We'll have to wait to see what happens. Meanwhile Odyssey's Greg Stemm, who hopes to pay for the venture with film rights and museum shows, says nothing from the shipwreck will be sold individually:
"It's too old and rare....It should be kept together as a collection [that the general public can view]."
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