Anderson on the looming underwater heritage struggle

The "Philosopher of Anthykera", a 3rd Century BCE bronze head discovered near the Anthykera shipwreck.
The “Philosopher of Anthykera”, a 3rd Century BCE bronze head discovered near the Anthykera shipwreck.

Max Anderson has written an insightful op-ed highlighting the coming tension between commerce and archaeological examination for underwater sites and wrecks:

The technology needed for deep-sea exploration is advancing rapidly. What once seemed like science fiction will soon become a reality, with exploratory probes not only transmitting images but operating retrieval devices equipped to reveal artifacts and move them to the surface. Archaeologists have also begun using DNA analysis on wrecks in the Mediterranean, yielding information ranging from what onboard bowls once contained to the home port of the sunken ship.

But only a tiny fraction of this material has been explored. For example, of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin listings in Italy, only three involve underwater archaeology. And this in the nation estimated to have among the highest concentrations of archaeological sites in the world.

If discovered relatively undisturbed, shipwrecks offer a tantalizing opportunity for archaeologists. They can yield remarkably detailed information about both the cargo and the presumed origins and destination of the vessel. They can also provide extraordinary insight into the geopolitics, economies and artistic inclinations of any given period of the ancient world. Archaeologists follow a rigorous set of procedures not just to retrieve objects but to preserve whatever information about them the site itself can disclose.

In recent decades, a cottage industry of private exploration companies has emerged, lured by the promise of gold bullion and coins known to be in wrecks of trading vessels from the 16th century onward. Many of these are clustered along the eastern coastlines of North and South America. Such expeditions are rarer in bodies of water frequented in antiquity owing to our lack of information about lost treasure. But given the rate of progress in detecting and evaluating the contents of sunken vessels, we will doubtless soon see an increase in the pursuit of ancient shipwrecks.

The high cost of thorough undersea archaeological expeditions inside a nation’s territorial waters is prompting some countries to enter into partnerships with commercial concerns. This raises vexing questions about sacrifices of scientific thoroughness in exchange for expediency.

Anderson, Maxwell L. “Cultural Heritage’s Nautical Future.” Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2016, sec. Opinion.

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