The glee that I took last week in seeing the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage coming into force seems to have provoked much puzzlement on the part of readers.
While most respondents agreed that historic shipwrecks scattered on the ocean floor deserved careful archaeological study, many wondered why academic or non-commercial archaeologists should have exclusive right to the world’s underwater heritage.
“Why is it wrong for a private company,” wrote one thoughtful reader, “if it did the excavation the same way a museum or university would have done it, and disseminated the information about it (whether in AJA or on Discovery Channel), why is it wrong for them to keep what they found ?
Why is that any different from the many, many boxes of artifacts that museums have stowed away [and] gather dust not to be seen by anyone?”
There are several points here which I think are important. To begin with, I have yet to come across a treasure-hunting company operation that even comes remotely close to most government- or university-sponsored excavations.
Excavating a shipwreck is a very time-consuming and laborious operation. Quite apart from the slow, tedious work of excavating and meticulously recording an underwater site (work that takes even longer at the bottom of the sea than it does on land), there is the delicate, decade-long or more business of stabilizing and conserving artifacts removed from the water.
Then there is the analysis and publication of the finds.