Gold rush: The battle over sunken treasure

By Dan Vergano

Shipwrecks ! Treasure ! Gold, gold, gold ! The hallmarks of treasure-hunting are the stuff of adventure stories, more than fun enough to make archaeologists, who are mounting increasing complaints against the pillaging of sunken ships, seem like wet blankets.

But more is at stake than just a few loose doubloons, they say.

"The big picture is that a fair amount of humanity's past we don't know, and it's important we don't let it become lost forever," says maritime archaeologist James Delgado, head of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

The latest flashpoint comes with the recent premiere of the show Treasure Quest on cable's Discovery Channel, which follows deepwater exploration company Odyssey Marine Exploration as its teams explore two historic shipwrecks.

Odyssey is in hot water with Spain over one of them, fighting it out in U.S. federal court over rights to the wreck code-named the "Black Swan." Odyssey announced the discovery of the wooden sailing ship in 2007.

An editorial in Archaeology magazine, published by the American Institute of Archaeology, charges that "the Discovery Channel is cashing in on the business of systematically looting shipwrecks" in teaming up with Odyssey.

"The artifacts that Odyssey sells might inspire people to wonder about what life was like on board a ship a few hundred years ago when they played an integral role in the rise and fall of nations, but getting real answers about that history requires wrecks to be scientifically excavated and analyzed.

The results have to be shared and debated so that they can become part of the historical and archaeological records.

Otherwise the artifacts are just trinkets, conversation pieces, or decorative touches on the coffee tables of those who can afford them," writes the magazine's Zach Zorich.


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