Treasure Fever
January 15, 2020 6:29 AM   Subscribe

The discovery of a legendary, lost shipwreck in North America has pitted treasure hunters and archaeologists against each other, raising questions about who should control sunken riches.

Cape Canaveral contains one of the greatest concentrations of colonial shipwrecks in the world, though the majority of them have never been found. In recent years, advances in radar, sonar, scuba diving, detection equipment, computers, and GPS have transformed the hunt. The naked eye might see a pile of rocks, centuries of concretions, crusts of coral, decayed and worm-eaten wood, oxidized metal—but technology can reveal the precious artifacts that lie hidden full fathom five on the ocean floor.

posted by poffin boffin (15 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Peak 'it belongs in a museum!' energy.

since moving to florida, I frequently get the urge to renew my PADI certification on the off chance that maybe one day I might possibly go dive a wreck. Realistically, however, the only type of salvage I have a chance of seeing is bags of cocaine washed up on the beaches after a hurricane.
posted by logicpunk at 6:45 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


There's two sentences about finders fees that would alleviate at least a great deal of the problem. I'm not going to specify amounts as I really don't know, but this way the discovers get some compensation and everything ends up in the museums where it belongs. Ideally the salvors find the wreck, call in the archeologist, get paid and move to the next.
posted by Hactar at 7:33 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]


It seems like Pritchett's whole defense is "All the money and time my investors and I put in on this should trump the law."
posted by Thorzdad at 7:35 AM on January 15 [7 favorites]


They were vessels built for war and commerce, traversing the globe carrying everything from coins to ornate cannons, boxes of silver and gold ingots, …
and thousands upon thousands of enslaved people. Many of these sites are mass graves and need to be treated respectfully.
posted by scruss at 7:48 AM on January 15 [21 favorites]


It seems like Pritchett's whole defense is "All the money and time my investors and I put in on this should trump the law."

To be fair that's a pretty common justification for a lot of shenanigans in the US... and it usually works.
posted by davros42 at 7:55 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I understand that this article is trying to present a nuanced view, but I'm having a hard time generating much sympathy for the wealthy real estate developer who wants to be able to sell all of this stuff for as much money as possible. The finder's fee thing wouldn't work, because none of these treasure hunters are going to be happy with anything less than "all the money".
posted by Rock Steady at 8:25 AM on January 15 [7 favorites]


It is, imo, pretty hilarribly ironic when nations like Spain assert ownership of shipwrecked bullion which they looted from the Americas and imperiously demand its return, but the case of the French ship carrying protestant colonists seems pretty clear cut.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:28 AM on January 15 [17 favorites]


like if someone carjacks me after i rob a bank vault i don't get to assert ownership of those big bags marked with $$$ just because they were in my car at the time.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:30 AM on January 15 [11 favorites]


It is, imo, pretty hilarribly ironic when nations like Spain assert ownership of shipwrecked bullion
Last week I visited a big, internationally-famous museum. They had a whole exhibit about "repatriating" colonial grave goods taken from western European museums by the Nazis. . . to The Netherlands. There was no hint of self-awareness or irony in the signage.

I find it hard to be nearly as sympathetic to the treasure hunters as the piece's author. It's time to make private ownership of antiquities embarrassing. Let's swap the social stigma we place upon sex workers and porn dealers with people who bid for artifacts. (Not that museums and nations always do a great job preserving this stuff. But, at least there's a chance.)
posted by eotvos at 10:27 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


I think the only defensible position of the treasure hunters is they put in years of work that the nations were unwilling to do, and then the states just waited until they had done the hard part and only then claimed it.
posted by corb at 10:42 AM on January 15


that's basically the definition of an imperialist state, "that's a nice $ASSET you got there, be a shame if something... happened to it"
posted by poffin boffin at 10:46 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Where's Indiana Jones when you need him?
posted by chavenet at 11:15 AM on January 15


'To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.' seems to have an analog with gold and nations.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 11:33 AM on January 15


I was disappointed that the article didn't touch on how nearly anything of value on these ships was looted from the indigenous peoples, as pointed out above. Bronze cannons? Sure, you can have them back. Piles o' coins and gems? They weren't yours to begin with. And I was also bothered by every reference to 1500 Florida implying it was a big ol' chunk of empty land.

The "ecosystem" described in the article seems Very White.
posted by maxwelton at 12:00 PM on January 15 [7 favorites]


It's an interesting debate. If one considers looting after military action or subjugation as stealing practically everything in the world currently owned by someone is an ill gotten gain. As someone whose people's land was stolen and yet own a house on land stolen from a different aboriginal group it is somewhat personally unsettling. My own cognitive dissonance situation.

And of course the aboriginal groups that claim the land I own (and that my ancestors used to own) didn't step into a ownership vacuum either. Though conquest they were the owners when the white men showed up. If that had happened 200 years earlier it would have been a different First Nation in control but they were killed off in wars over the land or resources by the current claimants.

I think the only defensible position of the treasure hunters is they put in years of work that the nations were unwilling to do, and then the states just waited until they had done the hard part and only then claimed it.

On the other hand there is no compelling need to extract all the antiquities available in a short period of time. They'd still be there without the treasure hunters if Spain/Florida/indigenous peoples decide to search for them 50 years from now. That a nation is unwilling/unable to exploit/extract these wrecks doesn't give carte blanche to anyone with the means to pursue this hobby to plunder at will. We wouldn't accept our neighbours coming onto are property and cutting all the trees down just because we weren't harvesting that lumber and I don't think the treasure hunters should be given a pass on this either. However you want to slice it the ships aren't abandoned property; they and the materials within could legitimately be claimed by many people and anyone who made it through kindergarten should know that finders keepers isn't a valid argument.
posted by Mitheral at 8:59 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


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