Archaeologists, treasure hunters clash at meeting

By Larry Bernard - Sun Sentinel

Marine archaeologists and treasure hunters met Thursday with some bitter words for each other, as the two sides tried to find a middle ground in the salvaging of shipwrecks for personal profit or scientific study.

Many top names in marine archaeology are at the Pier 66 Hotel in Fort Lauderdale for four days of a symposium that brings together sport divers, scientists and treasure hunters to discuss developments in the field and to air differences.

Chief among them is the find last month of the Nuestra Senhora de Atocha, which sank in a September 1622 hurricane off Key West. Treasure hunter Mel Fisher, searching 16 years for the Spanish galleon, claimed a mother lode of $400 million.

But several in the scientific community lambasted Fisher and his chief archaeologist, Duncan Mathewson, for what they described as raping a valuable historical site without proper study.

``They say they are trying to do archaeology,`` said Peter Throckmorton, a marine archaeology pioneer. ``They`re not doing archaeology. Have you read Mathewson`s book? It`s a travesty. I wouldn`t give it a pass as a term paper.``

Throckmorton, who unleashed a virulent attack against Fisher and his crew, called Mathewson the ``Atilla the Hun`` of salvagers. But Mathewson would not be baited.

``I`m not going to get into a shouting match. I`d rather do archaeology than talk about it. If that`s all they brought me here for, I`m going home.``

But he stayed long enough to describe to an audience of mostly sports divers how the search for the Atocha became successful. He said that he has invited a team of outside archaeological consultants to help study the ship before reaping the harvest of gold and silver in its cargo.

``It is full of the most wonderful archaeological riches you`ll ever find on the seabed,`` Mathewson said, inviting divers to Key West to help map and salvage the wreck. Fisher, who was in Los Angeles, was scheduled to appear Thursday but could not make it. Instead, he is scheduled to talk at 7:30 p.m. today.

It is that law that gave Fisher exclusive rights to his treasures, in wrecks off Key West and Vero Beach. Scientists want a new law, one that gives states control over wrecks, preserving those with historical significance. Congress is considering such a change, although experts at the symposium could not agree on how to define whether a shipwreck is significant.

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