Finding treasure and losing history

By Zach Zorich

For more than a year, the marine salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration has been embroiled in a legal battle with the government of Spain over the rights to a site they call "Black Swan," which might hold the most valuable sunken treasure ever recovered.

At the same time, underwater archaeologists working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization have succeeded in creating a treaty that bans treasure hunting in the territorial waters of signatory nations (see "A Victory in the War of Wrecks.")

But you won't hear much about any of that in Treasure Quest a new series on Discovery Channel (Thursdays at 10pm) that takes a completely uncritical look at Odyssey's business of finding, removing, and selling archaeological artifacts from the ocean floor.

As the UNESCO treaty takes effect and legal pressures mount against Odyssey, the Discovery Channel is cashing in on the business of systematically looting shipwrecks.

The first episode opens with a scene at "Black Swan", where the Odyssey crew gleefully scoops up gold and silver coins using a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Odyssey claims that "Black Swan" is not a shipwreck, it is a debris field--a site where treasure may have been thrown overboard perhaps from a ship that was in danger of sinking and needed to quickly off-load a large amount of weight.

If this claim is true, then the treasure could be considered abandoned property. Because the treasure was found international waters, it would belong solely to Odyssey.

The Spanish government isn't buying this story. They believe that Odyssey has found the wreck of Nuestra Senora de la Mercedes , a ship that sunk in 1804 carrying a large amount of coins.

They are demanding to know the site's location and to be able to inspect the artifacts that Odyssey has recovered.

If the coins came from Mercedes then the treasure is Spanish property and Odyssey might not get any of the treasure.

On the other hand, the judge in the case could give Odyssey a salvage award that could be more than 90 percent of the treasure as compensation for its recovery.

Treasure Quest reveals very little about the site (Odyssey considers even basic information about the site proprietary).

The legal battle is only briefly mentioned during the first episode, but the scene at "Black Swan" does show that the program's producers are more interested in the search for gold than history.

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