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June 5, 2009 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Is salvaging sunken treasure a form of piracy or the preservation of history? Does commercial for-profit exploration of historical shipwrecks taint the historical legacy of these naval graveyards? Who owns the treasures lost for so many centuries? Marine archeology is testing its legal limits with one man's work. [previous]
posted by infini (25 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Finders, keepers, bitches!
posted by flarbuse at 11:52 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]




Is salvaging sunken treasure a form of piracy or the preservation of history?

False dichotomy. You drop treasure on the ocean floor and leave it for 200 years, it becomes fair game.
posted by yath at 12:00 PM on June 5, 2009


But what about 2000 years, or 20,000? There's a point where it stops being treasure, and becomes a historical artifact, isn't there? I have no idea where that point is--just speculating that the line isn't completely bright.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:05 PM on June 5, 2009


If it is piracy, then pickpocketing people on a Carnival Cruise is also piracy.

This is more like looting from a site that happens to be underwater.
posted by snofoam at 12:11 PM on June 5, 2009


WTF? Sunken treasure belongs to pirates! It taints the historical legacy of sunken treasure when it falls out of pirate hands. (Or Nazis, if it's sunken bullion-carrying subs.)

Though, come to think of it, considering how the Conquistadores accumulated New World treasure in the first place, probably Spain herself has a certain right to fly the jolly roger.
posted by jfuller at 12:12 PM on June 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


There are a lot of interesting points brought up in the Archaeopop post. 1) The boat-fulls of gold and silver came from the enslavement of local peoples, 2) so the salvaging of "Spanish artifacts" could be seen as "laundering blood money," and 3) few people who have the money to properly document underwater archaeological finds care about the history beyond the monetary value of the loot. If there was nothing but bones and remnants of an exploration vessel, instead of a boatload of precious metals, would anyone really be disputing the whole practice? Would anyone care to keep it secret?

Archaeopop's writer has an interesting solution: My ideal solution to the legal wrangle? Stemm and Spain both take 10% of the proceeds from the ship, and the balance put into a reparations fund for development and education in indigenous communities in Latin America.

I fear that no matter where the money from the loot goes, it'll do little good to the descendants of the people who actually obtained the metals from the earth. But the loss of history to treasure hunters is rather sad. What makes Greg Stemm's crew any less of grave robbers than the people who looted the pharaohs tombs? The law of international waters?
posted by filthy light thief at 12:19 PM on June 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


There's a point where it stops being treasure, and becomes a historical artifact, isn't there?

There's no reason it can't be both. Just because something is historically important doesn't make it public property.
I have to go with finders keepers on this one.
posted by rocket88 at 12:22 PM on June 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Though, come to think of it, considering how the Conquistadores accumulated New World treasure in the first place, probably Spain herself has a certain right to fly the jolly roger.

I don't know much about pirates, but weren't they more of a hit-and-run (or board-and-loot) type of villainy, rather than the conquesting sort who'd set up shop and loot the native lands for all they were worth? Reminds me of Terry Pratchett's notion of barbarians versus civilization.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:23 PM on June 5, 2009


Greed is Good
posted by Rumple at 12:23 PM on June 5, 2009


I just read a related article on salvaging WWII aircraft.
posted by exogenous at 12:28 PM on June 5, 2009


All I know is, if these guys find my sunglasses, I want 'em back!
posted by orme at 12:46 PM on June 5, 2009


exogenous - it all sounds very Indiana Jonesish

Driven largely by wealthy American collectors, interest in such "warbirds" has grown into a multimillion-dollar frenzy that rivals the most feverish art trend or real estate boom, according to interviews with dozens of collectors, aircraft restorers, museum curators, and government officials.


i can just imagine some guy with those round rimmed glasses and a homburg waiting for the stuff to show up
posted by infini at 12:48 PM on June 5, 2009


My ideal solution to the legal wrangle? Stemm and Spain both take 10% of the proceeds from the ship, and the balance put into a reparations fund for development and education in indigenous communities in Latin America.

That's not a bad idea. European plunderers forced these people to dig the crap out of the ground for them, and now some overgrown rich kids want to ensure it all stays in the hands of the wealthy? No, I rather like the idea of "OK, since you went through all the trouble, sure, you get a cut. But some of it goes in a museum for us common folk to gawk at, and the descendants of the people who were forced to actually mine it out of the earth, they get the lion's share."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:02 PM on June 5, 2009


In the first link the Times Online incorrectly gives OME as the symbol for Odyssey Marine Exploration. It should be OMEX. I noticed the stock yesterday when it lost half its value because a judge recommended that the more than 17 tons (15,422 kilograms) of sunken treasure from a ship codenamed "Black Swan" be returned to Spain.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:12 PM on June 5, 2009


What about this gold at the bottom of the ocean is any different than all the other stuff that was stolen from native Americans by europeans? Like for example, all of north and south America?
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 1:12 PM on June 5, 2009


The gold is returnable without having to displace millions of people?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:13 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


What about this gold at the bottom of the ocean is any different than all the other stuff that was stolen from native Americans by europeans? Like for example, all of north and south America?

If you go back far enough, everything in the world was stolen by Africans.
posted by rocket88 at 1:45 PM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Africans? Pfft. It's those damned dirty Neanderthals! Oooh, lookit me, I'm upright! I'm raping and pillaging the earth! Jerks.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:20 PM on June 5, 2009


On the blue ball, the blue burbles 'bout bling filled boats befouled by Behemoth's brother beneath blue sea. Birthright or business, beseech or bequeath? Bah!
posted by Mblue at 4:13 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


As a former archeologist, I have very divided feelings about this issue - even before we get to the point of who gets to keep the spoils. The for-profit firms are finding wrecks that might otherwise never be found, and they are spending LOTS of cash to map them and retrieve the artifacts. Even if they sell the artifacts and gold to the highest bidders, there are many unique historical items back in circulation among collectors and available for research that would otherwise never have seen the light of day again. So there's that. Yet the fact that they don't generally (with some exceptions) document their retrievals to archeological standards means that a huge part of the data from the wreck site - the provenance of the items, some not-valuable items, etc. - gets lost. And once that data is lost, it's gone forever.

I get the treasure hunting part, of course, as most of us can imagine the thrill of finding sunken treasure (particularly if you are competing with others to do so). And I know that part of the reason I spent so long as a shovel bum was the thrill of the unknown historical artifact coming into your hands - not seen by another human being for hundreds or even thousands of years. And yet I can't understand the mindset that would allow someone to not worry at all about how their selfish search for treasure negatively impacts our understanding of the past. (And it doesn't seem to me that people like Gregg Stemm worry at all about it.) It's just beyond me.
posted by gemmy at 4:22 PM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can't say that I see this as piracy at all. A pirate in these cases would really just be a looter acting under cover of darkness and with complete disregard for archeological practices.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that half of the value in these finds is in that they were properly recorded for future study.

So in at least one case here, Spain is just being opportunist. If they really cared about preserving these antiquities, they would have had a national team out there long before Stemm.
posted by snsranch at 4:23 PM on June 5, 2009


It's one thing to sneak into a place like Angkor thom and take a chisel to one of the friezes.

It's quite another to find millions of dollars of capital to invest in cutting-edge technology, as well as years of historical research, just for the crapshoot of a chance that you might find a long-lost wreck.

Like this guy. You spend that much of your life looking for buried treasure, having to endure people mocking your dreams, plus all the inevitable disappointments and false hopes, only to actually find it—and then some faceless insurance corporation (/museum/government agency) swoops in and says, "Yoink! Thanks, sucker!"? No, fuck that. Those guys get to keep their shit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:18 PM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Illicit Cultural Property blog has a good post up about this complete with a copy of the opinion giving the "black swan" treasure to Spain.

It's interesting to note that Peru also filed a claim for the treasure since the gold came from there. Peru might be involved in the appeals processes as well, but that's still unsure.

I love this sort of stuff! Thanks for the post. UNESCO's Underwater Cultural Heritage site also has some good information on why shipwrecks and other underwater sites deserve protection.
posted by Arbac at 6:44 AM on June 6, 2009




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