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common ground

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

Online Archive

*  Historic Property or Just Property?

(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 Francis P. McManamon

Shipwrecks and their cargo commonly have been regarded as property. The first recorded recoveries from sunken ships were commercial ventures. The Greek historian, Herodotus, records such efforts in the 5th century B.C. Sunken cargos, weapons, fittings, even major ship components, all were salvaged whenever technically feasible. For centuries after the classical Greeks, shipwreck recoveries were thought of only in commercial terms. For the most part, the earliest recoveries of ancient artifacts of interest for archeology, art history, and history date to the 19th century. Then, salvors and sponge divers occasionally came across ancient objects while carrying out their work.

This is a strikingly different perspective than the one we have regarding terrestrial sites. Even the early historic exploration and excavation of sites on land aimed to recover works of art and curiosities. The purpose of these initial efforts was not strictly commercial, although recovered objects often had inherent monetary value also. Since 1906 in the United States, through the public policies established in the Antiquities Act and expanded throughout the century by other statutes, archeological resources, and other kinds of historic properties, have come to be viewed mainly for their commemorative, educational, and scientific value.

The fact that shipwreck excavations continue to be associated in the public mind primarily with treasure shows how difficult it can be to change perceptions. The fascination with such projects, whether done for treasure or science, feeds particularly on the mystique of adventure, danger, and derring-do that often is associated with archeology. Underwater excavations, particularly, conjure up the swashbuckling, treasure-loving, havoc-spreading dark side of Indiana Jones that is part and parcel of this image.

One reason for this is that shipwreck sites are as exotic and remote as ancient sites were at first discovery by Europeans. Typically they are difficult to find and require elaborate logistics to investigate. Due to this relative inaccessibility, museums and collectors may see treasure hunters as their only source of artifacts. Even certain governments—motivated by fame, money, or the desire to develop tourist attractions—allow, and sometimes promote, treasure hunting or salvage.

All these factors make protecting submerged sites difficult for both organizations and individuals, from the local level to the national. In the United States, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 envisions an approach that balances a wide range of interests. In enacting the statute, the United States declared that the commemorative, educational, historic, and recreational value of shipwreck sites are of special importance. As such, the federal government asserted an interest in having these sites protected and preserved for public enjoyment and education. However, the law recognizes that the states should have the responsibility for caring for historic shipwrecks and deciding the appropriate uses of them.

To assist states that already have submerged cultural resources programs, as well as those that do not, the ASA directed the National Park Service to prepare guidelines for the comprehensive management of historic wrecks. Published in 1990, these guidelines recognize and try to balance the variety of interests at stake.

Given this backdrop, how can we promote preservation? The general challenge is a long-term approach to changing public attitudes. Essential to such an approach is working with teachers to modify school curricula, as is underway to meet similar challenges in preserving terrestrial sites. Students should be introduced to archeology as a way of learning about these wrecks and the stories that can be derived from proper study of them. An important part of this message is that historic shipwrecks should be preserved for the public benefit.

Products aimed directly at the public—exhibitions, brochures, TV programs, newspaper stories, and World Wide Web sites—are also needed. Such products, likewise, should promote a preservation theme.

Effective law enforcement has a role in a long-term approach. A few believe they have the right to plunder shipwrecks, even those protected by federal, state, or local law. When an individual or organization is caught in illegal actions, law enforcement must be swift and effective. Successful prosecutions of plunderers should be widely publicized to serve as a deterrent. This publicity will also provide a reference point for the public on what constitutes inappropriate and illegal behavior.

However, the law must go beyond protecting against looters. There is a critical need for planning and zoning laws, on all levels, to protect submerged sites in harm's way of projects like dock construction, public or private. Where such laws exist, preservationists must ensure that they are implemented.

Historic shipwrecks have an exotic history and their preservation is inherently difficult. However, at least some of the keys to their preservation and commemoration are the ones that ensure the same for their counterparts on dry land.

MJB/EJL