UNESCO Condemnation of the Black Swan Recovery

Koichiro Matsuura has an interesting editorial in yesterday’s Miami Herald on Odyssey Marine, underwater archaeology and the Black Swan wreck. He is exactly right about the number of wrecks under the sea, how important they are, and what a resource they could be if excavated scientifically. I agree that commercial exploitation certainly damages underwater archaeological sites, but UNESCO needs to do a better job of bridging the gap between archaeology and commerce.

Rather than attempting to ban all commercial use of underwater sites, why not move forward and show how commercial exploitation can be sensitive to the archaeological context when done properly? Instead of taking a combative approach, why not co-opt these salvage operations as archaeological efforts?

Admiralty law is one of the oldest branches of the law, dating back thousands of years. The presumption has long been that the salvor will be entitled to a portion of what they find on the ocean because they have risked their equipment, or their lives in some cases to salvage underwater sites. That general position will not change any time soon. The 2001 UNESCO Underwater Heritage Convention takes an aggressive line, and prohibits all commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage. This is a step many nations will refuse to take. Only 15 nations have signed on, and the convention requires 20 before it enters into force. In this case, by arguing too vehemently, I think UNESCO has left itself with no say on the disposition of underwater sites found in international waters.

Here is the full text of Matsuura’s editorial:



It may be the richest treasure ever discovered in a shipwreck — hundreds of thousands of gold and silver coins. A private firm announced it had recovered them from a colonial-era vessel, dubbed the ”Black Swan.” The story came out last May and attracted worldwide attention. But the Black Swan isn’t a unique case. A few months ago, important finds were made of sunken ships, and at least one of them, off the coast of Cirebon, in Java, was destroyed. Many other such wrecks have been found and looted in recent years, in locations ranging from the northern Atlantic to the South China Sea.

Underwater cultural heritage is as precious as heritage on land. It comprises archaeological sites of great significance such as the ruins of the Alexandria lighthouse, one of the ancient world’s seven wonders; the Carthage of antiquity in North Africa; the fabulous Mahabalipuram and Dwarka temples in India; and numerous Neolithic villages that remain submerged in the Black Sea.

It also includes the remains of King Philip II of Spain’s invincible Armada and Kublai Khan’s fleet, as well as an estimated three million sunken ships scattered on the ocean floors. These underwater archaeological sites are often better preserved than sites on dry land because cultural heritage is protected by a slow rate of deterioration and the lack of oxygen. Their inaccessibility further shields them from looting. They can therefore teach us a great deal about the origins and history of civilization.

There is an urgent need to protect this underwater cultural heritage, which for the last several years has come increasingly under threat. Technical progress in detection and diving and escalating prices on the international market for objects snatched from the deep have led to the loss of many particularly valuable archaeological sites and seen their precious cultural objects dispersed. The problem is further aggravated by the overly prevalent view of such archaeological sites as ”treasures” that can be discovered and appropriated. They should in fact be considered essential elements of a common cultural heritage, as communal property to be preserved.

The perspective must change. UNESCO has been fighting for years to change it. In November 2001, its General Conference adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This international treaty, which now counts 15 states parties, will enter into force when 20 countries have ratified it.

The UNESCO text defines underwater cultural heritage as ”all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character that have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years.” It promotes in situ preservation, given the importance of the historical context of the submerged cultural objects as well as the favorable conditions for conserving these objects, namely the lack of oxygen and slow deterioration as long as they remain underwater.

Condemn looting

Without presuming to resolve the sensitive issue of property of cultural objects that may be disputed between several states — generally the state of the ship’s flag and the coastal state — and without prohibiting professional archaeology or preventing recovery activities by explorers working in responsible ways, the text establishes the principle that “Underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited.”

The international community must mobilize to ratify the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. If we condemn acts of looting in which archaeological sites are gutted with bulldozers or Mayan steles and Khmer sculptures torn out with chain-saws, then we must also sanction underwater looting that deprives future generations of the context surrounding artifacts. The international community must have means at its disposal that are commensurate with its ambitions to protect the integrity of its underwater cultural heritage.

Koichiro Matsuura is director-general of UNESCO.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Treasure, Salvage and Archaeology

John Ward Anderson has an informative update on the ongoing dispute between Spain and Odyssey Marine in today’s Washington Post.

I’ve written on this before, but here’s a short recap. In May it was announced that $500 million worth of silver and gold was discovered from a wreck Odyssey has code named the Black Swan. The discovery is probably the most valuable underwater find yet discovered. Speculation abounds that the wreck could be the Merchant Royal which sank off Cornwall, or the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk by the British Navy in 1804 known to be carrying a great deal of silver.

Spain suspected Odyssey Marine had discovered one of her ships, and brought a legal action against the company in Federal District Court in Florida. Later in July, one of Odyssey’s vessels, the Ocean Alert, was forced to remain in port in the Spanish port of Algeciras before releasing it. Another vessel, the Odyssey Explorer, has been detained in Gibraltar because Spanish authorities have warrants to detain it if it leaves Britain’s waters. This is a difficult issue as the territorial waters in the area are open to a great deal of dispute.

In the Washington Post, we get some of the comments of the interested parties. Here’s what Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey Marine had to say:

Shipwrecks are a resource like any other resource, and every other resource — scientific, cultural or otherwise, whether it’s coins, whether it’s stamps, whether it’s antiques — it’s all owned, bought, sold and traded all the time.

That’s one perspective certainly, but many archaeologists are very critical of commercial exploitation of historic wrecks. James Goold, Spain’s counsel gives his client’s view:

Everything points to Odyssey having known exactly what ship they were looking for and having then decided to claim it was unidentified,… The law is quite clear that an owner of a ship remains the owner after it sinks, and a sovereign nation has a right to protect its cultural heritage, … Spain has cultural heritage laws, and Spain has a program of underwater archaeology, and there are projects Spain undertakes by itself or with archaeological institutes for the public benefit, but not so someone can scoop up gold coins and sell them…

At present, the situation is untenable, as advances in technology make it easier to discover these wrecks. Also, the state of admiralty law is essentially just finders keepers. That does not seem likely to change unless the archaeology and heritage lobby can effectively negotiate with the interest of commercial exploitation. Perhaps some archaeological research is better than nothing?

The dispute will be interesting to watch unfold. If the vessel is Spanish, Spain may have rights to it if it is not deemed abandoned. However Odyssey will likely be entitled to some kind of salvage award, as admiralty rewards finders. Admiralty law assumes that a salvor should be rewarded for risking her life and property to rescue the property of another. From what I remember of my admiralty course in law school, it is likely that because this sunken treasure has been lost for a great deal of time, Odyssey Marine will likely get the majority of the value of the property. The ultimate determination is up to the judge to determine though, and will sometimes depend on how dangerous or how much skill was needed to find the wreck.

The 2001 UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) precludes commercial exploitation of wrecks altogether. In an ideal world that rule might work. But archaeological resources–at sea or on land– are seldom left alone, and few nations have signed on to the UCH convention. I think archaeologists are understandably frustrated, because they know how much such a wreck could tell us, and we don’t really have any way of knowing what Odyssey is doing with the wreck.

A convention or a policy which only incorporates the view of the archaeologists will always fail, and that is the biggest problem with the UCH Convention. Major market nations, and historic superpowers with historic wrecks (like nuclear subs, warships, etc.) will not sign on. Ideally a pragmatic solution must be reached, similar to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England & Wales or the Scottish Treasure Trove system whereby admiralty law should incorporate archaeological value into salvage disputes. At present the only value is that of the objects rescued. But the archaeological record has value as well, and perhaps that should be quantified as well. Salvors could be punished for destroying or failing to document the record. That will take legislation or treaties. Judges cannot inject such a requirement. The first step will be to build a consensus for action. In the interim, the simple finders keepers rule will prevail.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Spain and Odyssey Marine

The Spanish civil guard has seized a vessel belonging to Odyssey Marine soon after it left Gibraltar. As I’ve stated in earlier posts, Odyssey Marine found a 17th Century wreck somewhere in the Atlantic, which it says may be worth $500 million. The gold has already been shipped back to the United States. Both Odyssey Marine and authorities from Gibraltar say the ship was illegally seized because it was in international waters according to the BBC. However, as I’ve said before it isn’t at all clear where Spanish waters end and International waters begin, and the interested parties have of course not clearly laid out their maritime boundaries. I don’t consider myself an expert on admiralty law, so I’m not really sure who has the stronger claim to the treasure which was shipped back to the United States. I do know that the Federal case pending in Florida will be interesting to watch unfold. From the cultural policy perspective though, I haven’t seen any evidence that Odyssey is conducting serious archaeological study, though perhaps they are.

(Hat tip to David Nishimura at Cronaca)

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on Odyssey Marine

NPR’s All Things Considered had an interesting story on Odyssey Marine yesterday. It’s a good chance to hear both sides of the debate.

One of the founders of the publicly traded company, Greg Stemm said, “The only thing we’re saying right now is that we’ve really recovered about a half-million coins, and a number of artifacts that are from the colonial period … that were in the Atlantic Ocean.”

But the attorney representing Spain, Jim Goold says “The U.S. has a lot of Navy and other ships that have sunk around the world… The idea that … anyone can take U.S. government property just by looking around in the water and pulling it up without authorization … just doesn’t work. And that’s not what the courts say.”

It will be interesting to see how this case unfolds. It strikes me there is a tremendous tension between studying the wreck scientifically and commercially excavating it. The UNESCO Underwater Heritage Convention precludes commercial exploitation of wrecks. Finding a workable compromise between commerce and archaeology is particularly difficult with underwater heritage. This massive half a billion recovery from the still unidentified wreck underlines the problem.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Showdown on the Strait of Gibraltar

The dispute between Spain and Odyssey Marine has taken an interesting turn. A Spanish court has ordered the interception of two of Odyssey’s vessels if they decide to leave Gibraltar. The two ships are currently moored in Gibraltar. The Spanish Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said “International laws are behind us and if anything outside the law occurred it will have an answer, and what is ours will return to Spain.”

Odyssey has been secretive about where exactly they discovered the record shipwreck. Some have speculated that the wreck was in international waters off the coast of England. However Spain apparently feels otherwise, especially as Odyssey vessels were doing marine research in Spanish waters recently.

Over at Opinio Juris, Julian Ku has some interesting things to say, as does Anton Zeilinger in the comments. It seems the international boundaries of the territorial waters are very unclear. The maritime boundary between Spain and Gibraltar and between Spain and Morocco is unresolved. Even if Odyssey wanted to send its ships through the Suez canal, its not clear when they would be passing through Spanish waters.

The upshot is, states need to resolve their maritime boundaries. For a very interesting example of that problem, in the Adriatic, you can see an article my colleague Jernej Letnar Cernic has co-authored with Matej Avbelj, The Conundrum of the Piran Bay: Slovenia V. Croatia – The Case of Maritime Delimitation, forthcoming in the Journal of International Law & Policy, available on SSRN.

Spain is taking a very aggressive line with Odyssey marine. Perhaps they are attempting to get Odyssey to reveal the location of the wreck. Spain wants to be real sure the wreck was in international waters, or it may want to send its own salvage and archaeological teams to study the wreck. The dispute will certainly continue, and the forthcoming federal admiralty case in Florida is going to be very interesting.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Spain Sues Odyssey Marine

A couple weeks ago I discussed Odyssey Marine’s discovery of what may have been the largest-ever shipwreck recovery. It seems now that Spain has decided to challenge Odyssey Marine’s title to the salvaged treasure. Julian Ku over at Opinio Juris has some thoughts, speculating that “Spain would either have to pay salvage costs if they retain title, or if the wreck is deemed abandoned, then its ‘finders/keepers.'”Here is an excerpt of the AP Story:

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Spanish government has filed claims in U.S. federal court over a shipwreck that a Florida firm found laden with Colonial-era treasure, an attorney said Thursday.

If the vessel was Spanish or was removed from that country’s waters, any treasure would belong to Spain, said James Goold, an attorney representing the government.

“It’s a very well established principle under Spanish, U.S. and international law that a government such as the kingdom of Spain has not abandoned its sunken ships or sunken property, and that a company like Odyssey Marine Exploration may not conduct recovery operations without authorization by the government,” he said.

“The kingdom of Spain has not authorized any such operations by Odyssey, and by these legal actions it will see the return of any Spanish property Odyssey has recovered,” Goold said of the claims filed Wednesday.

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. CEO John Morris said in a statement Thursday that “such a move was anticipated by Odyssey and is considered normal in Admiralty cases.”

The company has previously said Odyssey would notify all claimants once it conclusively determined the ship’s identity. Odyssey said it was not found in Spanish territorial waters.

“If there is anything Spanish involved, they want to work with the Spanish government and be certain the Spanish government is completely satisfied with the result,” said Allen Von Spiegelfeld, Odyssey’s attorney in Tampa. “I don’t think the rights of the Spanish government would have been threatened.”

The company announced two weeks ago that it had discovered a shipwreck containing 500,000 gold and silver coins somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The Tampa-based company said the site was outside any country’s territorial waters but would not give the exact location or name of the ship.

Odyssey has said that the ship was not in Spanish territorial waters and was not the HMS Sussex, a shipwreck that Odyssey recently got permission from the Spanish government to search for in the Strait of Gibraltar.

But Spain has called the new discovery suspicious and said the booty may have come from a wrecked Spanish galleon.

In Britain, the find generated press reports that Odyssey had salvaged the wreck of the long-sought British vessel Merchant Royal, which sank in bad weather off England in 1641. Odyssey has not confirmed or denied these reports.

Assuming the wreck was found in international waters, I’m not sure Spain has a tenable claim here. This may just be a perfunctory admiralty action by the Spanish to make Odyssey prove that the wreck was outside Spanish waters, and that it was not a Spanish ship. It is an interesting case, and I’ll continue to post information here as it becomes available.

Another interesting theme to all this is that it will be the colonial powers that have a potential claim here, either England or Spain if the wreck were discovered in their territorial waters. The new world civilizations who were stripped of the precious metal before it was sent back to Europe would of course have no claim whatsoever. On a moral sliding scale, this would seem to render Spain’s claim a bit less sympathetic in my view.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Massive Antiquities Arrests in Spain

Over the weekend in Spain, the civil guard in Cadiz announced arrests of three individuals alleged to have patrolled the shallow waters off Cadiz. They used an underwater robot to salvage objects from ancient shipwrecks, yielding treasures as varied as Roman anchors, Phoenician pottery, and bullets from the Battle of Trafalgar. The Guardian report has labeled the individuals “pirates”. Though their behavior violates Spanish law, I’m not sure we can call them pirates in the conventional sense. A number of companies legally salvage wrecks in other waters. Generally, English and American admiralty law rewards salvors. When property is lost at sea, the rescuer can claim a salvage award on the property. That doesn’t appear to be the case for the defendants in Cadiz though. I would guess that the defendants were patrolling within Spain’s territorial waters. An important issue at the criminal trial will likely be how the prosecutors can prove the objects were taken within Spain’s waters. Of course, their claim seems to be helped by the fact that the individuals were hiding the objects in hidden compartments in their oxygen tanks. The criminal law probably triggers as soon as the objects were brought ashore

Without knowing too much about Spanish Admiralty law, Spain has outlawed salvage in this area, and with good reason. The port of Cadiz has been a bustling port for millennium, and has “the country’s largest shipwreck cemetery, holding an estimated €1.5bn in sunken gold, silver and pearls, according to Juan Manuel Gracia, president of the Association for the Recovery of Spanish Galleons.” No wonder then that Spain is attempting to restrict salvage in the area. As technology is increasingly opening the depths to exploitation, these disputes are likely to increase. Spain and England are currently disputing the wreck of the Sussex, a British warship which sank with $4 billion worth of gold in 1694.

It seems that the underwater treasure hunters had ties to others as well, because there are a number of reports today that 52 individuals have been arrested throughout Andalusia. The arrests seem to be linked to the three in Cadiz. The Guardian reports that “A team of 200 officers searched 68 flats to confiscate the pieces, many of which were bound for foreign collectors. The ring sent coins and small items through the mail. Police found larger pieces destined for Faro, Portugal, where they were to be flown to Belgium.” Reuters has a wire report as well. The reports boast that over 300,000 objects were recovered. That’s a staggering sum, and one wonders how many of the recoveries were of high quality. However, this image of recovered mosaics indicates that the authorities didn’t just recover anchors and bullets.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com