Largest Historical Shipwreck

Recently, Odyssey Marine Exploration announced they had recovered 500,000 silver and gold coins from a shipwreck which may have been 40 miles from Land’s End in Cornwall. It may be a record for the The BBC has a story here and video here. The Daily Mail has a story here. Odyssey have not released the location of the wreck for security and legal reasons. The treasure has been stored in an “undisclosed location” in the US. The value of the coins recovered could approach half a billion dollars.

Odyssey stresses it is the legal owner of the coins, and that it conducted the salvage by “diligently follow[ing] archaeological protocols using advanced robotic technology, and the artifacts are now undergoing a meticulous conservation process”. I’ll confess a profound ignorance of how much archaeologists can learn from shipwrecks. However Will Anderson over at the assemblage expresses some well-founded skepticism about the archaeological merits of the salvage, “Whether what Odyssey Marine Exploration does can be termed archaeology is debatable”. And in response to claims that the archaeological protocols were followed, “So we shall soon be seeing a full and thorough excavation report published, the site will be assessed and managed, and the loot will not be flogged over the internet”? Chances of that seem unlikely, as Odyssey has already sold coal from another shipwreck, the SS Republic.

Peter Spiro over at Opinio Juris summarizes the current state of shipwreck recovery law in International waters, and ties in the difficulties with regulation of underwater cultural heritage to a new book by Dan Drezner. Drezner postulates a “club standards” situation where there is low conflict among great powers and high conflict between the great powers and other actors. Spiro says “that seems to be what has emerged in the context of treasure hunting, with the great powers reaching ad hoc agreements on particular finds (as was the case with the Titanic), at the same time as they also handle the issue through domestic law. The universalizing option of an open-to-all multilateral treaty gets left by the wayside”.

That brings us to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. JH Merryman has been a very vocal critic of the Convention, because it completely precludes commercial exploitation, as was the case here. 14 Nations have signed on. The convention has received little support from most European nations and the United States. Here is an excellent overview of the Convention from Robert Blumberg, who led the US delegation to the UNESCO negotiations. As it stands now, there is no comprehensive law regulating wrecks found in International waters, which begins 24 miles out to sea. Regulation which does exist comes about through multilateral agreements for individual wrecks and bilateral agreements, or domestic legislation.

Clearly, this record recovery will anger some nations, and may provide some new impetus towards forming a workable convention for maritime states, perhaps by amending the UNESCO UCH convention.

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2 thoughts on “Largest Historical Shipwreck”

  1. Thanks for the background on the law of the sea. I remember the introduction to Philippe Sands’ book Lawless Worlddescribing a dispute between America and Britain in the 19th c. being the basis of later international / environmental law – something about seals…

    It is a real concern that shipwreck excavations are so often unregulated and beyond the law, because they can provide some very valuable archaeological information. For treasure hunters, underwater exploration is a fruitful (and often unpoliced) frontier. What needs to happen is for their enthusiasm and expertise to be channeled through some sort of framework or code of practice where the results are properly documented. The problem of ownership crops up of course, but if these explorers – archaeologists were employed in some official capacity, and there was some provision for designating ownership (to museum/s), this might not be an issue.

    Unless of course they are just prospectors after the booty, in which case they should be prosecuted as thieves.

    Will Anderson

  2. Unfortunately, archaeologists seem to lose the public relations battle with treasure hunters (there is an article about this and the archaeologists’ perspective of treasure hunting in the August 2007 AIA Archaeology Watch called “The Fig and the Spade”, by Jerome Hall). You mention not knowing what can be learned from shipwreck sites. This is a common problem for underwater archaeologists today; treasure hunters have a lot more time and financial resources to devote to advertising themselves than archaeologists, who can spend decades writing reports on a single shipwreck (which can be a problem; most people don’t want that much detail). The media often tends not to distinguish between the two groups, or portrays archaeologists as complaining too much. The use of ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to salvage underwater sites tends to capture the public’s imagination and give salvage operations an appearance of being meticulous and scientific. Actually, these machines have little use for studying shipwreck hulls, for instance, although they can be used to retrieve artifacts. In a proper excavation, shipwreck hull remains usually take a great deal of recording in place before they can be removed from the site. Treasure hunting groups intent on making a profit simply do not have the time or the expertise to do a proper job of recording well preserved shipwreck hulls.

    For an idea of what can be learned from shipwreck sites, see the Institute of Nautical Archaeology’s website (at Texas A&M University)and especially the works of George Bass and Richard Steffy, who are two of the founders of underwater archaeology as a discipline. There has been a great deal of work in Scandinavia for many decades, including full scale reconstructions of Viking ships from the Roskilde in Denmark, excavated in 1959 by Ole Crumlin-Pedersen. The French scholar Eric Rieth has also done a great deal of important work on shipwreck reconstruction. There are underwater archaeology programs in many countries now (this is NOT an exhaustive list!) who make important contributions to this field; unfortunately, they usually aren’t well-known outside of universities.

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