UNESCO - The Chase for the Wild Treasure Hunter is open...!


From Courrier de l'Unesco - by Vincent Noce, journalist with the French daily newspaper Libération

Since profit is the treasure-hunters’ only motive, and every day of exploration costs a small fortune, they are in a hurry to bring up whatever can be sold, even if it means destroying everything in their way.

Finders Keepers and Military Exceptions Patrick O’Keefe, an Australian lawyer and cultural heritage specialist, says the discovery of the Titanic was a turning point. Exploration teams now have the technology to go anywhere and to excavate at once-unthinkable depths. “International regulations are urgently needed because no wreck is safe anymore,” he says. But the international community is lagging far behind the technology. Some countries have more or less successfully established rules on underwater archaeology within their territorial waters (usually 12 miles, or 22 km., from their coasts).
However, few are developing the resources to carry out their own undersea explorations. In international waters, anything goes. Individuals are entitled to keep what they find, and every ship that is “saved” belongs to whomever discovered it, in keeping with the maritime tradition of “salvage on the high seas.”

But UNESCO’s Lyndel Prott says, “the wrecks aren’t saved when they’re found by a treasure-hunter. On the contrary, they’re the ones who endanger them.” The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea barely touched on the issue of underwater treasure. UNESCO has drawn up a planned convention that would ban all commercial use of underwater wrecks. Unfortunately, the world’s major maritime and technological powers–the United States, Britain, France and Japan–want to keep their hands free and look askance at any attempt to take away their freedom of action.

Their navies cite the tradition that warships forever belong to the country that launched them to keep others from touching their wrecks, even when they are four centuries old. The United States used this argument to win its right to the wreck of the Alabama, a Confederate privateer sunk by the Union navy off the French port of Cherbourg towards the end of the American Civil War.

And what about a Spanish galleon wrecked in the Portuguese Azores ? When is a wreck deemed to have been abandoned by its country or its owner ? Two meetings of specialists–a third has been set for July 2000–have so far failed to sort out the mess, or to obtain a firm political commitment from the international community to lay down the law in Davy Jones’s locker.

New technology means shipwrecks swallowed up by the deepest
waters can now be reached. But who owns the precious finds ?
Some countries allow a free-for-all of plundering

The world’s biggest museum lies under the sea. Over the centuries hundreds, perhaps thousands of ships–nobody has even a remote idea how many–have sunk in storms or the heat of battle, bringing Roman amphorae, gold bars, cannons and crates of Chinese porcelain with them. Maritime trade began booming in the sixteenth century: the ships of the Dutch East India Company made 8,000 round-trip voyages to China in a 200-year period. But until the mid-twentieth century, there was no wayreach this underwater museum, and the world’s oceans were like a gigantic safe containing civilisation’s treasures.

Two of the oldest ships found recently came to a grim end just over 2,700 years ago, when they were probably on their way from Tyre to the Pharaohs’ Egypt laden with wine-filled amphorae. American underwater archaeologists Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, and Lawrence Stager, of Harvard University, found the two Phoenician vessels, each less than 20 metres long, off the Israeli coast in June 1999.

They had been asked to locate an Israeli submarine, the Dakar, which sank in 1969, taking its 69 crew members down with it. Two small underwater robots, Jason and Medea, descended to 300 and 900 metres to film and inspect the Phoenician vessels, which led to the discovery that they were still in an excellent state of preservation. The deeper the water the less oxygen, so wrecks there are much better preserved than those closer to the surface, according to Ballard. “The great depths, the absence of sunlight and the great pressures seem to preserve history far more than we thought,” he says.
A 3,300-year-old ship was found off Turkey in more shallow waters, and two more Phoenician vessels, dating from the seventh century BC, were located near Murcia, Spain, but all were in much worse condition. The discovery of the two wrecks off the coast of southern Israel came as a surprise because historians were unaware that the Phoenicians conducted trade along that route. A wine decanter (showing that wine was decanted in those days), stone anchors, food crockery and a censer were found among Tyrrhenian amphorae typical of the period, which allowed researchers to roughly determine the date the ships went down as well as where they sailed from.

More important discoveries should come in the near future that could significantly alter our understanding of ancient maritime trade,” predicts Ballard. The discovery off Sicily of Roman ships dating from between 100 BC and 400 AD has already confirmed a long-disputed theory according to which the Romans were quite capable of sailing in deep water a long way from the coast.

A question of ownership

Yet until only half a century ago, when the autonomous deep-sea diving suit was invented, it was still impossible to go anywhere near deep-sea wrecks.

In 1952 Jacques Cousteau led the first underwater archaeological expedition off Marseilles, which was a very busy Mediterranean port in Roman times. His team brought up Greek and Roman amphorae, which puzzled specialists at first because they were at least a century apart in age. Then the divers realized they had been excavating two wrecks that had sunk one on top of the other. At that time, no laws or official bodies regulated underwater archaeological exploration in France or anywhere else.

In 1966 President Charles de Gaulle’s minister of culture, André Malraux, set up an underwater archaeological exploration division and made it compulsory to declare finds in French territorial waters.

In 1989, two years after a similar law had been passed in the United States, France adopted legislation that gave the state sole ownership rights to all sunken treasures found in its territorial waters. Until then, it had been possible to share them. As a result, the number of declarations plummeted from about 250 a year to under 50.

Seven years later, the government tried to counter the drop by announcing rewards of up to 200,000 French francs (approximately $30,000) for discovering such treasures, depending on its scientific value. But those rewards are rarely paid: explorers risk breaking the law since a single amphora can fetch up to 10,000 French francs ($1,500) on the market. Unaware amateur divers think amphorae do not “talk.”

That is a big mistake, because they do. They can tell us when the wreck occurred, the nationality of the crew and how the cargo was shipped. And the discovery of amphorae is what usually indicates that an ancient wreck is nearby, concealed in the sand. For the 14 centuries between 700 BC and 700 AD, these large jars were used to transport wine, oil, pickled products, spices, tea and other goods. After that, hundreds of years went by before vessels once again began carrying items–cannons and porcelain this time–that future archaeologists and treasure-hunters could use as clues to detect the locations of shipwrecks. The years in between are a blank, either because wrecks disintegrated or remain invisible, or because maritime trade collapsed.

Site leasing to private investors

For example, a barnacle-encrusted cannon tipped archaeologists off to the presence of a wrecked French fleet off Venezuela’s Las Aves islands. King Louis XIV had dispatched the warships to drive the Dutch out of the Caribbean. Commanded by Count Jean d’Estrées, the French looted Tobago before heading to Curaçao, where they would have defeated the Dutch had not half the 13 warships and 17 privateers sunk in a storm on May 11, 1678.

Five hundred of the 5,000 crewmen were drowned and 1,000 died of starvation or disease after being stranded on desert islands. The disaster put an end to France’s dream of ruling unchallenged in the Caribbean, which quickly became a haven for pirates.

Though they no longer fly the skull and crossbones, pirates are still there today. About 15 years ago, a Venezuelan, Charles Brewer-Carias, and an American, Barry Clifford, one of the world’s best-known shipwreck hunters, found the French flagship Le Terrible, which had 70 cannon and a crew of 500, amid other wrecks at the site. Clifford says he was shocked by the lease of the site to a private investor.

“The Venezuelan people will someday look back in horror at what is being permitted to happen to Las Aves,” he says. Venezuela, which does not have a public archaeological body that could explore the site, gave a construction company called Mespa exclusive permission to excavate and sell whatever they could find.

“We had an archaeologist on board the research vessel,” says the firm, which admits it wants to make a profit by setting up a discovery “industry”. “In every single case where countries have issued permits for treasure hunting, they have always ended up the losers,” says Florida archaeologist John de Bry. “Piracy is alive and well.” Mespa thinks it can find Count d’Estrées’ and his officers’ personal valuables, but archaeologists doubt a war fleet would have been carrying much “treasure.” However, they fear the historical and archaeological value of items will be lost, as well as the wreck’s position.

The wrecks also cast light on how ships were designed and built in the days French minister Colbert was creating a royal navy and an entire industry around it.

Recording the exact position of the various items on the sea’s floor before bringing them up to the surface is an extremely delicate, costly and time-consuming task. All underwater exploration is very expensive and comes without any guarantee of success. Since profit is the treasure-hunters’ only motive, and every day of exploration costs a small fortune, they are in a hurry to bring up whatever can be sold, even if it means destroying everything in their way. Some even use explosives to reach what they want.

They have no interest in items that cannot be sold but which may be of inestimable value to historians, such as a pottery shard bearing an inscription that may provide clues about a ship’s route, a piece of shoe that can tell much about how the sailors dressed or a skeleton showing wounds or nutritional deficiencies.

The hull of the Mauritius, which sank off Guinea on its way back from China in 1609, was still lined with nearly 20,000 plates of almost pure zinc, showing that Chinese metallurgists were very far ahead of their European counterparts.

The problem of granting exploration permits is much greater in Portugal’s Azores island chain, which has one of the world’s biggest concentrations of wrecks because it was a necessary stopover for ships crossing the Atlantic. Portugal’s museum of archaeology has listed 850 sunken Spanish and Portuguese ships there, many loaded with gold. Eighty-eight of them lie in the Bay of Hangra de Heroismo, where the British treasure-hunter John Grittan showed up in 1972, eventually spending two months in jail and being banned from exploring.
One of the most famous treasure-hunters, Florida-based Bob Marx, joined the undertaking, lured by a deal giving him half of whatever was discovered at a depth of up to 50 metres and 70 per cent of what was found further down. “This law has sacrificed our history to money,” says Francisco Alves of the national archaeology museum. Meanwhile, the Spanish are frantically poring over legal documents to see if they have a right to save galleons that are their own heritage.

Sometimes treasure-hunters hit the jackpot. One of them, the impetuous Michael Hatcher, netted about $15 million from the piecemeal sale of Chinese porcelain he found in the wreck of the Dutch ship Geldermalsen, which sank in the China Sea in 1752.

Christie’s, the world’s biggest auction house, sold the pieces off for a while but then quietly stopped, probably because of the controversy and legal problems raised. Hatcher claims he found the wreck in international waters, but researchers say it was lying within Indonesia’s territorial limits. Jakarta opened an investigation, and one of the investigators drowned in a diving accident at the site, adding to the detective novel aspect of the case.

Eventually the Indonesians dropped the enquiry, but rumours tied that move to the corruption of the Suharto family then ruling the country. “All this money going around just makes matters worse because it is recycled to pay for new explorations,” says Lyndel Prott, a legal expert on world heritage matters with UNESCO. “Countries allow the kind of pillage of their underwater treasures that they would never tolerate on land.”


Comments (3)

1. Tom Bennett (link) 03/08/2016

It is the so called Treasure Hunters who are the only ones who have provided the Museums with their treasures. Governments and Museum authorities need to "play fair" which they have not done to date. There is no incentive for look for treasure anymore, certainly not underwater, as the finder seems always to be the loser. The Museums and archaeologist will be bereft of artifacts and important cultural treasures if they do not have the foresight to treat salvers with more respect. Spain will eventually realize that they are the loser and not Odyssey in their shortsighted greed for the return of Black Swan coins.

2. chriskroger 30/11/2009

Try South Africa - where the greedy South African goverment "South African Heritage Resource Agency" cons the National Lottery, for a state of the art "patrol" boat and equipment and then hires the boat out to their close friends in the SA movie support business as a workboat for cameramen, instead of protecting the 100 year old Tantallon Castle wreck from looters like "Aqua Exploration", who callously strip wrecks of everything of commercial value.

3. Bluebeard 18/10/2008

Cough Cough Wheeebulshiteezzz
If the Governments were not so greedy they will have more co-operation from the Wreck hunters. The Original owners of Shipwrecks older than 100 years are all dead and no one else has a claim, finders keepers.

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