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Monday, September 20, 2010

Musing Mondays

Should commercial archaeologists have a role in exploring our marine heritage?

Long story short, this is an argument whether or not Archaeologist should get involved in Marine Heritage in England. Some argue yes and some no.

It has been argued that underwater sites/shipwrecks should be handled the same as land sites. And i agree. These sites should be protected and preserved.

But one should note that:
Much of the archaeological work in the UK is conducted by commercial archaeologists. This work is often funded by a developer, whose project is impacting on the archaeological resource, under the “polluter pays” principal of environmental policy. There is, however, another group who describe themselves as commercial archaeologists, who are more controversial. (Source)

This is the section of the commercial salvage community whose interest is in the commercial exploitation of historic shipwrecks. Their work involves the salvage of maritime archaeological sites with the aim of profiting from the sale of material recovered, although it is often justified as “saving” the material from imminent destruction or for “archaeological investigation”. (Source)
Archaeology is an applied science, and like any other scientific process conducts work in an objective way to recognised standards, documenting, archiving and sharing the data so that it is available for peer review and use by other researchers, now or in the future. Archaeological sites are a finite and non-renewable resource, and there is a fundamental expectation to preserve them for the benefit of the community as both a physical resource to be enjoyed and a means of learning more about the past. (Source)
The commercial sale of archaeological material is fundamentally incompatible with these aims. Rather than preserving the resource for the community, commercial salvage removes the resource from that community and places it in private hands, thus preventing public enjoyment of archaeological sites and further research into and understanding of the past. (Source)

So i agree that maybe its best if these commercial Archeologist stay away.  

What do you think?

Source of question and quote:


  1. I read the full article on Sunday Times website. I will try and keep this as short as I can as this is a personal soap box of mine.

    I agree with Greg Stemm the CE of Odyssey Marine Exploration.

    Stemm states that in order to save the history we have to be realistic. To locate, explore, document and salvage these wrecks cost in excess of 40 000 Pounds a day! No government funding body will EVER be able nor willing to pay these fees. The other correspondent (Dave Parham, senior lecturer in marine archaeology, Bournemouth University) states that there are over 5500 and that only 46 have been documented and declared of archaeological importance. Why would this be? Because there is little or no funding for the above mentioned exploration and salvaging.

    Archaeological sites on land and in water are constantly under threat from developers, fishing trawlers and nature. Most of these sites remain unknown until someone digs a foundation or has an afternoon stroll with his/her metal detector, or in the case of water with their sonar equipment. Once these sites are identified I do believe that care should be taken with the excavation of the site. This is not a treasure hunt or a free-grab-for-all. The objects recovered should be documented, photographed and in some cases be studied. The rare and unknown should be housed in a holding institute (in some cases) but there is no sense in housing 3000 of one type of artifact. The rest/excess can and should be put up for sale to the public or private buyers and the money raised put towards the cost of the salvage/excavation. Also to compensate the person/company/crew that made the discovery. KEEP IN MIND THAT WITHOUT THEM IT WOULD STILL BE HIDDEN FROM KNOWLEDGE.

    Lets take a case:
    A shipwreck was discovered in international waters. The ship sailed from China to England or America. It sank with it’s FULL cargo of porcelain, cloth, statues ect ect ect. The shipping crates were perfect (underwater) and not a single plate was chipped, cracked or broken. Complete dinner service with serving bowls/plates and (if memory serves) 12 place settings. The salvage was made and the pattern documented and the measurements taken. It was not a unique pattern nor a rare one. The whole “crate” was sold to a private person. Who is most probably using this “old” “antique” service for its intended purpose. The money from the sale went to the salvaging company.

    I do not see a problem with this.

    Both the correspondents use the phrase “for public enjoyment” having worked in museums I can say with great confidence that the public NEVER get to “enjoy” the treasures that are in the vaults of the museum. IF and that is a big IF, some of these pieces are ever placed on display it is for limited time only. They are locked in vaults and only taken out when and if someone one day wants to answer a research question. But they very rarely see the light of day otherwise.

  2. I fully understand what you are saying. But if these people are taking it without anyone knowing and just selling to private collectors its a problem.

    If we the public can get a opportunity to own these objects that's another story. But unfortunately i think its a matter of how big your wallet is.

    And i would be very mad if i wanted to see a particular bead and some big shot has bought it and no proper documentation took place.

  3. Kay's second message got lost, here it is in 2 parts:

    It seems that the 2nd part of my answer got lost in cyber space. I will incorporate it in this one.

    Museums these days have a non/selective collection policy and that if they have an example of an artifact or object they do not collect another. This is due to staff, space and money.

    As to your answer:
    The issue is MUCH wider than that. The article talks about professional private/commercial archaeologists that sell finds to pay themselves or fund their salvages/digs. Yes there are unethical archs out there both private and affiliated. The unethical ones do rob graves or salvage without proper permits and sell artifacts without concern. The majority however do offer these objects to museums and unies (yes for a fee, they have to make a living) and then they go up for auction. The artifacts and objects are documented but might not be published. Remember that only a very small amount of everything is published or even properly documented. In most cases the only description given in “small statue” “green bead” “decorated potsherd”. There are limited resources to “waste” on long winded descriptions. These are done when research is conducted on the object by a researcher. Museum and Unie staff don’t have the time in most cases for this.

    *the whole fee thing is a very long conversation on its own*

  4. Be careful of your definition of public – private collectors are part of the public. The private collectors are well aware of the historical, intrinsic and monetary (in some cases) value of the objects they acquire. Private collectors ARE NOT the villains they are made out to be by Hollywood, writers or anal retentive academics. These are passionate amateurs that protect history and they have the money and resources to do so. The most well known private collectors here are most probably the Oppenheimer family and then the banks. Their collections are accessible to researchers with legitimate research questions - many requests have been made and granted. The access isn’t advertised for obvious reasons. Yes there are collectors that horde and deny access but these are but a drop in the bucket.

    In this vain private/commercial archaeologists are also not villains. They will be responsible for the survival of the science. If the science is kept in the exclusive realm of science and academia it will die, due to the above mentioned reasons (and others). It is very sick already in my opinion. In my opinion the two correspondents and their followers can be very happily married and I can’t for the life of me see why there can’t be a win-win solution.

    As the first correspondent stated it has to be realistic and the reality is that governments do not have money and private sector does. If the science is to continue the two sides HAVE to start working together instead of viewing the other as the enemy.

  5. Very well said Kay!

    I understand now what you are saying.

    Do you think the two sides will ever work together?

  6. I have a Magaladon shark tooth (I'm pretty sure that is how you spell it). I found three diving off the coast of Flordia. I'll have to take a picture of it and post it so you can see.

  7. Ooooh yes please do!

    I would love to see :D

  8. From Kay:

    Hopefully!!! But it will take time.

    The new generation is responsible for the slight swing we already see in Europe and America.

    I remain optimistic and will continue to shout and do my part to facilitate this change.