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common ground

Contested Waters
Fall/Winter 1996, vol. 1(3/4)

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*  Mutate, Migrate, Adapt, or Die

(photo) Salvors search a ship in 1909.

"To make a discovery is the dream of most [sports divers]. A virgin wreck is a high-class trophy. It is also the first and last chance to record the scene in a pristine state."

John R. Halsey

by Toni Carrell

If treasure hunting and underwater archeology are two species competing for the same resource to survive, then archeology is losing, badly.

The resource is, of course, shipwrecks. The exact figures are unknowable, but it is safe to say that for every underwater site attended to by archeologists, hundreds of others are consumed as a result of environmental modification, weekend curio-seeking, and professional treasure hunting. Natural selection dictates that any endangered species has a limited number of options: mutate, migrate, adapt, or die. Both treasure hunting and archeology are trying to retain their essence while actively exploring the first three strategies and seeking to avoid the fourth.

The essence of treasure hunting is to find and salvage as much as possible as fast as possible. In the face of increasing regulation, depletion of the resource, and a more critical public, treasure hunting is mutating by changing its appearance, approach, and pitch. It is migrating to new habitats beyond the borders of the United States, and adapting by moving into deeper water.

The essence of archeology is to conserve and study as much as possible for as long as possible. The same pressures that affect treasure hunting, however, are at work. Graduates discover that the prime niches are filled, necessitating migration to other countries. Adaptation is producing active outreach, education, and forums for public awareness. Unfortunately, these efforts are not increasing archeology's share of the resource, but mutation may offer some promise.

If so, does this mean that the basic premise of archeology needs examination? Is it still in the public's interest to insist on preserving and interpreting the past through the careful study of material culture? There is considerable evidence to suggest that the public wants bread and circus, not science. Because the public pays for both treasure hunting and archeology, it is reasonable to assume that the one that delivers the most product will ultimately triumph. But how much mutation can archeology afford before it loses its raison d'etre?

This is the question that the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology considers routinely. Elected by members of the Society for Historical Archaeology, the ACUA is composed of 12 men and women with special interest and experience in the subject. The council is international in scope, representing state and federal agencies, avocational societies, conservators, universities, museums, and non-profit publicly funded research organizations.

Increasingly, the ACUA finds itself having to explain the difference between real underwater archeology and treasure hunting. To the layman, the expensive-looking, high-tech trappings and black-box printouts flashed by treasure salvors are indistinguishable from archeology. It is easy to convince the uninitiated that if you salvage gold bars from 1,000 feet with a multimillion-dollar robot, it must be scientific. However, the basic difference between salvor and archeologist is not the techniques they use, or the commercial value of what they find, but attitude.

With the passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in 1988, many archeologists heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that it would afford a degree of protection for those shipwreck sites that were still undiscovered. Some archeologists went so far as to suggest that the act might serve as a model that other countries might one day seek to emulate. Now, eight years later, it is apparent that the act's stimulus did not reduce the amount of the resource available to treasure hunters, or increase the amount available to archeology. Instead it caused a dramatic mutation: a new breed of shipwreck predator, the "commercial shipwreck salvor," successor to the familiar, simple treasure hunter.

Although it succeeded in removing historically significant shipwreck sites from the purview of admiralty salvage law, the act did not slow down the rate of predation. It actually provided the legal means by which commercial treasure salvors, citing themselves as a legitimate "user group," have been able to affect federal management plan development to consider shipwreck salvage permits. The goal of the new breed is identical to that of the old, but the approach uses an adaptation borrowed from nature: protective mimicry. Dressed in business suits instead of cutoffs and Hawaiian prints, toting briefcases instead of sacks of doubloons, the new breeds talk of the "sustainable recovery" of "commercially viable shipwrecks" using "cutting-edge technology" that will result in "tourism enhancement" and "edutainment products."

In the last 18 months, the ACUA has offered guidance on a number projects across the globe—all of which exhibit a disturbing pattern. Recognizing the exploitative proposals is becoming increasingly difficult. In Mauritius, a proposal to excavate "the richest shipwreck in the world" turned out, when examined by the council at the behest of the island's government, to be little more than a snipe hunt.

In another instance, "professional underwater archeologists" directing several projects in Uruguayan waters lacked the most basic education in archeology when compared to professional standards provided by the ACUA. Both governments are now looking into legislation to preserve shipwrecks as well as guidelines to evaluate proposals and personnel.

In a third case, a concerned citizen of Anguilla with a strong interest in preservation was surprised to learn from the ACUA that there are alternatives to commercial treasure salvage. As a result of several discussions, a university-based archeological team is now gearing up to survey Anguillan waters as a first step toward site preservation.

But for every success there are many, many losses, the greatest of which appear regularly between the pages of widely read and respected publications.

It is clear who is winning the competition for shipwrecks now, but who will win in the end? Is archeology merely a withered branch of treasure hunting, or its evolutionary successor? Certainly there were treasure hunters long before there were archeologists. But that could just as easily be a progression from a generalized ancestor to a specialized descendant, the product of natural selection. One observation strongly suggests which branch will prevail in the end: the growing tendency of commercial treasure salvage to imitate archeology. Would a species seek to mimic its competition if its adaptive strategies were superior? In the fullness of time, we will know which evolutionary path was correct—but of course by then it will be too late.

For more information, contact Toni Carrell, Ships of Discovery, 1900 North Chaparral St., Corpus Christi, TX 78401, (512) 883-2863, fax (512) 884-7392.