Comments submitted in connection with Anthropology Field Notes 6: Shipwrecks -- with Odyssey Marine Exploration





In launching the TAC video, Anthropology Field Notes 6: Shipwrecks—with Odyssey Marine Exploration, on 3 March 2008, we emphasized that our presentation of this program does not constitute an endorsement of Odyssey Marine Exploration and we invited our audience to submit thoughtful feedback. Thus far, this invitation has attracted the following comments. We encourage our visitors to join the conversation and submit comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..







Ivor Noel Hume, 30 November 2008


Dear Dr. De Cunzo:


I thank you for your letter of November 19 and for sharing with me your statement regarding The Archaeology Channel‘s airing of Odyssey’s program on the S.S. Republic.


It grieves me beyond measure to find myself at odds with the leadership of a society that I hold in high regard. But I would be untrue to my own ethics if I repudiate what I truly believe. Before reiterating all that I have previously said, let me make two points: I have no financial or other business interest in the Odyssey Marine Exploration Company. My support of it extends only to the Republic and not to anything unrelated or broadly regarded by archaeologists as “treasure diving.” Having been impressed by reports of Odyssey’s careful retrieval of artifacts from that ship and their seemingly thorough recording of the wreckage, I accepted an invitation to go down to Tampa to meet their people and visit their conservation facilities. I was not asked to give an endorsement or to say anything to the press, but only to comment on their recording methodology and to learn more about the quality of Odyssey’s work.


I entirely agree with you and your colleagues in condemning the looting of terrestrial sites be they graves, battlefields, or any others that contain cultural material from which knowledge can be gained. That there is a willingness by professionals to welcome the help of avocational archaeologists is to be applauded, for no one group has an exclusive right to the past. The same, I submit, is true regardless of whether the focus is on land or beneath the sea.


I also agree that the television program to which you object, was poorly conceived and executed. However, it was made for public consumption by technicians unaware of the issues that matter to archaeologists. The video provided a means to educate viewers about Odyssey’s marine technology as well as its conservation work in the lab to preserve and document the many artifacts it recovers from its shipwreck projects. The program was not intended as a forum in which to debate archaeological ethics. It could equally well have been used as an opportunity to discuss ownership and laws relating to treasure trove, flotsam, jetsam., etc. Instead, many viewers may have been left wondering why it was necessary to expend all that time and effort on a load of not-very-old bottles. The answer, of course, was that it was Odyssey’s archaeological responsibility to do so.


There can be no denying that the company exists to make money for its shareholders and salaries for its employees, both recognized by the IRS as profits, and differing not at all from the taxable income of professional archaeologists. In short, in one way or another, we are all in it for the money.


Just as Egyptological archaeology has a different set of requirements to those needed, say, by American historic site excavators, so under-water work is a discipline largely its own in terms of plotting, recovery, and conservation. It is only on reaching the phase of dissemination that all archaeological endeavors merge. We all owe it to the present and the future to share what we have found and learned, and to do it in terms that the public can understand and enjoy. It is fair, therefore, to ask: In the case of the Republic, has Odyssey fulfilled this obligation?


Before responding to that question, it is of paramount importance to recognize that Odyssey works at depths to which no diving archaeologist can go. To say, therefore, that it should be prevented from doing what it does is to demand that no one should have access to deep shipwrecks. A fabler might equate such a position as akin to that of a dog and its bone.


The Odyssey team includes two professional archaeologists who control all the plotting and recovery. I have not met them, nor do I know anything about their credentials, but I am assured that they are competent to do all that is required of them – albeit while sitting at video screens. One may ask, therefore, what prior training and education is needed to do Odyssey’s work to the satisfaction of the profession?


Recognizing that some archaeologists would categorize the Odyssey expeditions as being on a par with Mel Fisher’s Atocha salvage, the team went to commendable lengths to ensure that the Republic’s monetarily worthless debris field bottles enjoyed no less location-plotting and cataloging than did specie. Subsequently, the company’s curator, Ellen Gerth, published a commendable book cataloguing the wide range of bottles. The wreck was found in 2003 and a popular (i.e., readable) book recounting its history and discovery was published in 2005 – a far shorter time than is taken to publish most terrestrial archaeological site reports. An impressive interactive exhibit was mounted at Tampa’s Science and Industry Museum in 2007 and is currently on a national tour. It first opened in New Orleans in 2005. It is, to my mind, an excellent interpretation and better than all but one of the shipwreck exhibits that I have been privileged to visit. In short, Odyssey handsomely fulfilled its moral obligation to share its information with the public.


That the company’s publicists advocated the use of “unprofessional” terms to promote the exhibition may be an anathema to purists, as may be the book’s title Lost Gold of the Republic. In both cases, however, the intent was to encourage visitors and readers to benefit from the experiences. It is a fact, nonetheless, that the words “treasure,” “gold” and “pirates” excite while “report, survey, study” and other such academic words do not. Popularizing is not a dirty word – unless in using it one strays from the truth.


Your condemnation of the sale of shipwreck artifacts is, I suggest, as philosophically founded as are respect for motherhood and the flag. To reject either would be a sin so heinous as to be indescribable. I assure you that I agree. But I do not agree that the retention of every last potsherd or peso is in anyone’s best interest.


No museum needs nor wants a ton of conglomerated silver coins or, for that matter, a thousand 1860s wine bottles. Providing a sufficient number are retained to represent all discernable variations, the remainder have no further informational value. One can argue that nuances not now recognized as significant might in some future generation be usefully reexamined. But what museum has the space or the interest to retain and conserve large quantities of anything just in case that proves to be true?


Coin collectors, bottle enthusiasts, indeed collectors of anything, are characterized by the intensity of their enthusiasm. They spend more time studying their subjects than do curators or archaeologists who usually lose interests in their artifacts once their reports are written or their grants run out. The sale, therefore, of duplicate objects opens the door to further studies which may, in the end, prove to be of more lasting value than the wreck from whence they came. Furthermore, a few coins to pass around to a middle school class in the midst of sea-related studies can spark the kind of abiding interest that I enjoyed and benefited from when, at the age of eleven, an old Greek lady gave me an Athenian bronze coin.
I contend that the carefully controlled disposal of duplicate artifacts is educationally laudable and that policies that make it a career-ending crime should be reconsidered.


There is, I am afraid, a good deal of hypocrisy inherent in the “holier than thou” approach to the entire field of underwater archaeology – not the least of it in determining who shall do it and who may not, and what shall be done with the recovered artifacts. The Titanic exhibits and the recovery processes that preceded them are classic examples of the morally improper exploitation of the past. Nevertheless, salvage from its debris field was featured by the National Geographic Society and its exhibits were shown at the National Maritime Museum in London and in the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia. To my knowledge, nobody complained that Dr. Ballard lacked the appropriate archaeological credentials or claimed that the recovered objects had archaeological value. Similarly, one could question whether the costly recovery and exhibiting of the Monitor’s turret had intellectual or archaeological value commensurate with the huge investment made in its conservation and exhibition by the Mariners’ Museum.


At the other end of the scale is the Kansas City museum built to house and exhibit the cargo of the steamboat Arabia. Though far and away the best shipwreck museum I have ever seen, when the SHA had its convention in that city, members were advised to stay away from the museum. Why? Because the wreck was found and excavated by amateurs who began their commitment as treasure hunters before they learned that they had a responsibility to do it justice. Nevertheless, pleas for conservation help in this country were ignored or refused, and it fell to Canadian conservators to provide what was needed. The family that found the Arabia spent every penny it had on the project, not because it expected to profit from so doing, but because it had assumed an obligation and intended to honor it.


The same can be said of Odyssey’s commitment to the Republic. Although the company was spending $37,000 a day on-site and would spend a great deal more in post-recovery conservation and cataloging, it eschewed the money-saving temptation to scoop up the gold and go home. Before condemning Odyssey, I think it behooves the archaeological community to explain what it did wrong, what it failed to do – and how it can do better as its team gains more experience in this deep water recovery process.


To do less is to risk appearing to be driven by dogma perpetuated and sustained by peer fear. Rather than black-balling any archaeologist who works to educate and guide wreck salvaging companies, the need is for all to work together to a common end. Recognize that Odyssey exists to make a profit. But take advantage of its technological brilliance as well as its enormous investment necessary to sustain it, and learn how its work can contribute to the kind of data recovery that you believe to be lacking.


Legislation that keeps deep-sea wrecks from being found teaches no one. Instead, it fosters piracy and dark of the moon treasure hunting. And that, I am sure, is not what you (or any of us) have in mind.


I suggest that Odyssey’s operations can be likened to land developers who recognize that when clearing building sites, employing archaeologists and paying for what they do is part of the price of doing business. That one such developer with whom I worked earned a national conservation award leaves me asking why, when judged by that yardstick, Odyssey’s work on the Republic has garnered condemnation rather than commendation?


While writing this rather lengthy response I received a copy of the 2008 issue of Ceramics in America, which includes an excellent article by Ellen Gerth and her colleagues on the earthenwares from the vessel they call “the Blue China wreck.” Its cargo consisted largely of now monetarily worthless mid-nineteenth century domestic ceramics but which are of great interest to archaeologists and ceramic historians. Ms. Gerth had previously published an excellent article on writing slates from the Republic, a subject which to my knowledge has not before been studied in such depth. It is hard for me to understand, therefore, why these contributions to knowledge cannot be seen as evidence of Odyssey’s commitment to education.


In conclusion, I want to reiterate that I am commenting only on what I have seen and read, and not about any other activity on the part of Odyssey; nor am I arguing for or against issues of prior ownership.



Yours sincerely,


Ivor Noel Hume





Lu Ann De Cunzo et al., 19 November 2008


Dear Anthropology Field Notes 6 Viewers,


Several opinions have been posted on this web site about the differences between archaeology and commercial treasure salvage.  The Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (ACUA), Archaeology Division, American Anthropological Association (AAA), Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA), Canadian Archaeological Association, (CAA), Council for British Archaeology (CBA), European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (UISPP), Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA), Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and World Archaeological Congress (WAC) would like to summarize and reiterate the concerns the professional archaeological community (as represented by the above professional organizations) has with the video posted on The Archaeology Channel.  Simply put, commercial treasure salvage is not archaeology; in fact, the goals of archaeologists are diametrically opposed to those of commercial treasure hunters.  A video that highlights commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage has no place on a web site whose primary purpose is educating viewers, particularly when it tries to pass off commercial treasure salvage as archaeology.


One might ask, Why is commercial treasure salvage not archaeology?  The most obvious difference is the sale of artifacts from archaeological sites (any artifacts, in multiple numbers or unique single objects).  Whether their principal work is on land or underwater, archaeologists are in full agreement that the sale of artifacts is unethical, even if it is technically legal.  It does not matter whether the item for sale is a gold coin recovered from a shipwreck site or a ceramic pot removed from a grave.  The sale of artifacts drives the antiquities market, contributing to the looting and undocumented salvage of our collective past. 


Archaeologists work in a variety of settings, including academic institutions, privately-owned companies, government agencies, and publicly-traded firms that have demonstrated the ability to fund high-quality research without selling artifacts.  There are a number of reasons why the sale of artifacts is inconsistent with archaeological practice and ethics, which we would like to briefly outline here.


As scientists, archaeologists study and interpret past human behavior through the analysis of artifacts and material remains, followed by dissemination of scientific results.  Archaeology is not about simply collecting historical curiosities. To learn about people, we study artifacts, but equally important is context—the relationship between artifacts and their setting.  Examining context allows us to recognize patterns, and patterns lead us to the repetitive cultural practices that created them.  Patterns cannot be discerned by cherry-picking particular artifacts—all artifacts are an important and necessary element of the archaeological process.  If the goal of an expedition is not to learn about past human behavior, but simply to recover artifacts for display, then it is not archaeology—it is antiquarianism.  If the goal is to sell artifacts for profit, and the company’s main motivation is to enhance shareholder value, then it is not archaeology—it is commercial treasure salvage.


Archaeology is a scientific endeavor, and like all science, repeated testing by different researchers is one of its distinguishing characteristics.  Most materials (artifacts, excavation records, field notes, etc.) from archaeological excavations are curated in public facilities, so they are always available to future researchers to examine, apply new perspectives or analyses, and possibly come up with new conclusions.  For objects to be considered part of the archaeological record they, and any associated data that document their context, must be available in the future—all recovered artifacts, not just items deemed salable. When artifacts are sold and collections dispersed they are no longer available for future examination and are essentially removed from the archaeological record.  The recovery and dispersal of those objects is not archaeology—this kind of artifact mining is commercial treasure salvage.


The study of archaeology is about much more than objects.  It requires specialized training and knowledge, but welcomes and encourages the participation of interested members of the public.  Avocational archaeologists who share in the investigation of the past, teachers who impart information about archaeology, legislative officials who promote the protection of cultural resources, and the public who benefits from learning about the past, all serve as stewards of our shared cultural heritage.


These are some of the core principles of archaeology, which is the prevailing worldwide consensus adopted by UNESCO member countries in November 2001 as the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.  The 20 countries required to ratify the Convention have now done so, and the Convention will go into effect on 2 January 2009, becoming the international standard on treatment of underwater cultural heritage.   Anthropology Field Notes 6: Shipwrecks – with Odyssey Marine Exploration does nothing to demonstrate or explain the differences between archaeology and treasure salvage, nor does it distinguish between commercial treasure salvors and qualified archaeologists.  It does a disservice to the practice of archaeology and the importance of the past to a nation’s identity.  For all of these reasons, we are opposed to the inclusion of this video on The Archaeology Channel.




Lu Ann De Cunzo, President
Society for Historical Archaeology


Matthew A. Russell, Chair
Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology


Janet E. Levy, President
Archaeology Division, American Anthropological Association


Ross Anderson, President
Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology


Jack W. Brink, President
Canadian Archaeological Association


Mike Heyworth, Director
Council for British Archaeology


Anthony Harding, President
European Association of Archaeologists


Luiz Oosterbeek, Secretary-General
UISPP - International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences


William Andrefsky, Jr., President
Register of Professional Archaeologists


Dean R. Snow, President
Society for American Archaeology


Claire Smith, President
World Archaeological Congress






Ivor Noel Hume, 27 May 2008


Dear Dr. De Cunzo,


As a founding member of the Society for Historical Archaeology I venture to respond to your carefully presented letter to Dr. Pettigrew and viewers of Shipwrecks. I applaud your efforts to educate both the public and the diving community to the value of shipwrecks as sources of cultural information. I agree, too, that the looting of wrecks by artifact salvors diminishes the historical integrity of the sites and is to be deplored. But I question whether your denunciation of Odyssey Marine Exploration as failing to “abide by the ethical standards of archaeology” should be voiced officially in the name of the Society. By appearing to speak for all its members no room is left for serious debate. For that reason I feel compelled to take on the task of making the case for allowing the program to remain in Dr. Pettigrew’s library.


Before doing so, let me begin by stating that in my opinion that Shipwrecks (without amplification) is not a very good educational tool, being of more interest to 19th-century bottle collectors than to archaeology students. Beyond demonstrating that the Odyssey company is careful in its recording and storage of thousands of objects of minimal educational or commercial value, and that some of them are put on public display, one learns little about Webster’s dictionary definition of archaeology, namely “ the scientific study of the material remains of past human life and activity.” For that omission one may more legitimately blame the program’s producer (and lighting crew) than Odyssey’s curator. The case pro or con should be made not on Shipwrecks but on the National Geographic Society’s one-hour special it titled Civil War Gold which shows Odyssey’s site mapping and photography to advantage as well as its process for the sophisticated recording of each artifact. More importantly it links them to the history of the ship and its cargo – which lay at a depth far beyond the reach of diving archaeologists.


In technological terms it is the depth factor that separates Odyssey’s operation from the George Bass, Gordon Watts or Margaret Rule approach to underwater archaeology. If we ask, therefore, whether the work is being well done, no reasonable underwater archaeologist can deny that it is. Had the search for the Republic been intended to recover only specie, that could have been accomplished without consideration for the saving of anything else. The bottles that represent a high percentage of the finds, most of which have very little commercial value, could have been left where they lay and saved Odyssey a great deal of money and post-recovery responsibility. That the company chose not to take the quick and dirty route says much for its concern for history as a cultural resource.


The exhibition associated with the Republic discovery is the best of its kind I have ever seen and serves as a learning tool far superior, for example, to that associated with finds from the >Titanic which were displayed as widely as the Greenwich Maritime Museum in England and the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia. Those exhibitions were an exercise in prurient sensationalism and had little or no archaeological validity, yet the people involved were not castigated as Odyssey has been in your letter.


It cannot be denied that Odyssey is a business or that the purpose of business is to earn a profit for its shareholders and a living for its employees. To do so, something has to be marketed, and in the Republic’s case that means books, articles, exhibits – and the sale of duplicate artifacts be they coins or not-very-old bottles. Once conserved, cataloged and photographed, these duplicates have no additional, now-recognizable educational value. On the contrary, they pose storage and curatorial problems that few if any museums are willing to shoulder. I am reminded that in the 1950s Colonial Williamsburg proposed casting the bulk of its excavated but unstratified artifacts into the York River. At that time, too, the Mariners’ Museum considered that it had too many bottles from the Revolutionary War wrecks at Yorktown and was prepared to sell them one by one, the price doubling with each sale. Museums great and small continue to sell items from their collections that they consider duplicates or inferior and justify it by the code name of deaccessioning – usually after the death of the donors.


When claiming the virginity of archaeological ethics we should not forget that archaeologists both terrestrial and submerged are in the profession for personal profit. We call it being salaried or contracted. Furthermore, any archaeological endeavor that disturbs the context is guilty of destroying stratigraphy and other unrecognized evidence. Ideally, therefore, the pure in heart should eschew digging or diving and be content to study the stored artifacts recovered in the bad old days. Where, then, should we go to study that material? Over time, archaeological artifacts of little exhibitable importance are shifted into ever-deeper storage far from the watchful eyes of conservators and curators. At the Smithsonian, the Bermudian collections assembled by curator Mendel Peterson in the 1960s deteriorated to a point where the glass artifacts were no longer available for study. No sooner do archaeologists surrender their finds to others who had no personal involvement in their recovery, the future of the once-associated material is in jeopardy. That is a fact of life uninfluenced by the constraints of archaeological ethics.


The recovery of associated artifacts from depths unreachable by conventional divers provides researchers with new and expanded knowledge, be they numismatists, ceramic and glass collectors, button and bead enthusiasts or students of clay pipes, indeed anyone who can benefit from anything that can be brought back and studied. However, the price for this knowledge has to be paid, first by the company and its investors and ultimately by the wreck itself. That it should be required to pay for its own salvation is not unreasonable – particularly when the on-site cost of recovery exceeds $35,000.00 a day.


I hasten to add that I am in no position to comment on the international legal ramifications posed by Odyssey’s operation, and it would be foolish to deny that Odyssey exists for the purpose of “treasure hunting,” or to claim that bottles and not bullion are the measure of its success. But I put it to you that the dissemination of knowledge is treasure of another kind, and that curator Ellen Gerth’s book on the bottles from the Republic is clear evidence of Odyssey’s educational commitment. So, too, is the television program’s emphasis on the ceramics from the so-called “blue china” wreck. Intelligent viewers could readily see and appreciate that the stacks of undecorated cups and saucers represented an investment in time and labor that offered nothing more rewarding in return than a slim footnote in the history of the British ceramic export trade in the mid-19th century – and an article in Ceramics in America by Robert Hunter, a leading authority on that subject. Thus, one man’s junk can be another’s treasure.


The half-hour television program did not address the philosophical issues that you classify as unethical, but it seems to me that the video can provide a teacher with an excellent foundation for doing just that. Indeed, it can serve as a basis for considering whether it is fair to charge that the two archaeologists on Odyssey’s staff cannot be so considered and do not “abide by the ethical standards of archaeology.” To call for or demand the removal of the video from Dr. Pettigrew’s library surely is an assault on free expression that should terrify SHA members. It falls only slightly short of book burning and the arrest and martyrdom of those who disagree with us.


The SHA has a long history of condemning maritime grave robbing – as indeed it should. But in doing so it loses opportunities to help well-intentioned companies like Odyssey Marine Exploration from improving their operating standards or sharing their expertise and discoveries with the archaeological profession. By treating them as pariahs they may be tempted to go their own way – leaving the Republic’s bottles where they lay and the blue china where they found it. It would be a lot cheaper – but we would all be the losers.


It would be a sad day for the recovery of knowledge if the archaeological profession was to say that because we, the divers, cannot reach the deep-water wrecks, no one else should be allowed to do so. I would argue that obtaining some knowledge, albeit by the use of robotic arms, is preferable to none at all.


Yours sincerely,


Ivor Noel Hume





Ellen Gerth, 14 May 2008


Dear Dr. Pettigrew,


I recently had the opportunity to read Dr. De Cunzo’s Letter Regarding “Shipwrecks” Video on the Archaeology Channel. While I can appreciate her point of view, I respectfully disagree on a number of her statements which clearly misrepresent Odyssey and which, much to my dismay, are presented with little knowledge of our archaeological work in the deep ocean or our artifact collections policy. Hence, speaking for Odyssey and our supporters, including professional archaeologists (as well as IFA associates), curators, conservators, educators, scholars and researchers, I have addressed her letter with the goal of providing further clarification that we hope will serve to inspire a spirit of cooperation rather than misinterpretation and mistrust. I also hope to promote future dialogue—so that we can cooperate to best serve the greater public in the dissemination of knowledge, a goal that Odyssey shares with the SHA and its archaeological community.


Odyssey’s professional mission differs significantly from treasure salvage operations whose sole aim is the recovery of commercially valuable items from sunken wrecks, typically without regard to archaeological standards and procedures. In its commitment to recover, preserve, and document underwater cultural heritage for future generations, Odyssey adheres to the same rigorous archaeological standards applied to terrestrial and shallow water sites. However, a significant difference is the cost and the requirement for specialized equipment essential for conducting deep-water archaeology. Those archaeologists who have taken the opportunity to observe our work in the deep ocean have made a point of recognizing that our archaeological protocols are not only on par with the “academic” archaeologists, but in many cases far surpass them.


Additionally, many of our findings are then published and shared with the general public, as well as the archaeological and scientific communities. Odyssey has produced television shows, books, journal articles, archaeological reports, exhibits, and educational curriculum. We also provide access to artifacts and relevant materials to other bona fide researchers, archaeologists, curators, and publications—all with the goal to further disseminate knowledge to the broader public while contributing to the current scientific, historical and archeological record. The only place that Odyssey has not been successful in publishing at this point is in peer-reviewed archaeological journals that refuse our publications. Criticizing the company for not publishing in these journals, while continuing to refuse our good faith attempts to publish, represents the height of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, information about our projects is circulated more widely and is better accessed by the public than most, if not all, academic and institutional archaeological projects.


While it is true that Odyssey Marine Exploration offers select duplicate artifacts for purchase by collectors, these artifacts are thoroughly conserved, studied and documented before sale. It is the very pluralism of the collectors market that creates public interest in coins and artifacts and encourages diligent study and sharing of knowledge. Ditto for antiques, stamps, fine art, fossils, minerals, meteorites, and other artifacts that could just as easily be considered significant cultural and scientific resources, but are all actively bought, sold and traded. To diminish the capacity and desire of the private collector community to study and disseminate knowledge about artifacts they own is an unfortunate attitude that ignores the incredible contribution to the knowledge base made by these individuals who have an extraordinary passion for collecting. Does the SHA really believe that the study of coins has suffered because they are bought, sold and traded by private collectors? Ironically, it was private coin collectors that had to come to the aid – both financially and technically - of the Smithsonian when it was discovered that the institution’s numismatic collection was suffering treatment far below the standards of the private collector community.


While we will probably never reach an accord with the archaeologists who absolutely believe that no artifact should ever be bought sold or traded (unless of course it is de-accessioned by a museum, which is happening more frequently all the time), the idea that a professional organization would actually attempt to censor valuable information because of a dogmatic difference in philosophy defies understanding and might be worth considering when analyzing the lack of public financial support for underwater archaeology.


The funds generated by a for-profit enterprise such as Odyssey are used to finance further exploration and recovery, which includes the archaeologically sensitive investigation of historically significant shipwrecks containing valuable cargo as well as some wrecks that do not necessarily represent commercial opportunities, but offer substantial cultural, historical and/or educational value.


These same funds have permitted the dissemination of information derived from wrecks such as the SS Republic, which otherwise would have taken years to get into print and, once published, would likely appear in small circulation academic journals which are largely unavailable to the public and the educational community. The sale of coins and some bottles, recovered in hugely redundant quantities from the Republic wreck site, have helped support well documented, popular publications and the development of Odyssey’s 12,000 square foot interactive shipwreck exhibit which features hundreds of shipwreck artifacts and their corresponding historical information to share with the public while also educating the public about the archaeology, science and technology essential to our work in the deep ocean.


Moreover, as a part of our community outreach mission, Odyssey has developed a number of educational programs, including shipwreck exploration and marine archaeology curriculum that has been launched at a number of schools, including those with rural, socio-economically disadvantaged and at-risk populations. This Odyssey-based curriculum is now being developed into a Web-based instructional module for rural schools catering to disadvantaged populations.


Odyssey has spent over $2,000,000 to properly conserve, document and preserve the collection of 52,000 coins we recovered from the SS Republic, a process that includes high resolution photography, careful identification and airtight slabbing of every coin to prevent future degradation. For those that would suggest that we should have just left the coins in the deep, note the coins had not stabilized in situ. The variation in condition of the coins clearly demonstrated that they were undergoing corrosive saltwater intrusion and the impact over time would eventually have degraded all of the coins. As a result of our intervention, a significant number of the coins were recovered in nearly mint condition and we were fortunately still able to discern the tiniest of die variations, which has contributed significantly to the numismatic record—-and has been well-documented. As described above, it is highly unlikely that any academic institution or museum can assume these costs in their budget.


Odyssey has a collection policy that provides for keeping any artifact that is unique, or available in limited numbers, in our study collection in perpetuity. These pieces are available for study, display and educational purposes. Fortunately, the profits derived from the sale of duplicate articles funds the ongoing care and maintenance of this collection, so the public is not forced to fund the maintenance of the collection.


Regarding in-situ preservation, this is a misconception confirmed by the evidence that Odyssey has observed and documented at many of the deep ocean sites where Odyssey currently operates. Many of these sites have been profoundly damaged by the indiscriminate use of deep-water trawling nets, some of which now trawl the ocean floor at depths exceeding 2,000 meters.


One wreck site carefully surveyed and excavated by Odyssey in 2003, was largely unrecognizable during a return trip to the site two years later. Fortunately for scholars and others, Odyssey's pre-disturbance site survey, artifact retrieval and subsequent research and documentation have provided an enduring record of the site for years to come.


Speaking of museums, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many museums today are in a state of crisis. The Heritage Health Index website www.heritagepreservation.org/HHI/ provides a glimpse of the alarming lack of resources that museums possess to manage the collections that they possess today – much less their ability to continue to provide for shipwrecks collections in the future.


Not only are public funds for the acquisition, conservation, preservation, display, and storage of museum objects (particularly archaeological or historical objects) scarce, the costs for the proper care and treatment of such collections has become untenable. Admittedly, there is little space and no money to continue to house these collections that "must be stored in perpetuity".


In response, many museums are now acknowledging and permitting the de-accessioning and disposal of their collections as a legitimate part of responsible collections management, and in many cases, this “disposal” includes the approved sale of artifacts. As documented in the Smithsonian's own collections manual, "The Smithsonian disposes of collections by a variety of methods, such as donation, transfer, exchange, sale, repatriation, and destruction..."


Further, the British Museums Association recently reversed a 30-year ban on selling art and urged its 1,500 members to get rid of objects that are gathering dust. As noted by Mark Taylor, the Association’s director, “Wonderful collections can become a burden unless they are cleared of unused objects.” This new directive also permits, in some cases, the sale of objects. And as Vanessa Trevelyan, convener of the association’s ethics committee and head of Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service, also noted, “Although disposal of items is not without risk, it is preferable to transfer items to an alternative home where they will be treasured, rather than retain material that is not supporting a museum’s research, display or interpretation functions.”


One doesn’t have to do much research to see that this trend is growing. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo last year sold rare Chinese antiquities to private collectors at an auction that raised $18 million. The Technical and Community College's campus in Georgetown sold off a collection of 2,700 shipwreck coins in the face of a fiscal crisis.


In light of the current museum crisis, it is unreasonable to suggest that all duplicate artifacts—without regard for significance—should be placed in museums, preserved in perpetuity for mankind and future study, when at some future date they may very well be sold to make way for a new collection (or worse because of budget shortfalls!). If the SHA is truly serious about collections, why don’t they sponsor a policy that only allows artifacts to be donated to museums or institutions that will change their bylaws in a manner that will prevent ANY de-accessioning in the future? Of course, the yet-to-be-adopted UNESCO Convention attempts to promote this very policy, but it is unreasonable and unworkable policies such as these that have created such a huge barrier to potential signatories of the instrument.


With this said, Odyssey supports the notion that private collectors have the desire, the capability and the resources to provide for the proper recording, preservation, documentation and study of artifact collections and that the public need not content itself with gazing at that small percentage of pieces that museums can afford to display.


Odyssey would welcome a visit from Dr. De Cunzo so that she may have the opportunity to observe first-hand our archaeological operations and our conservation facility. This offer extends to other SHA archaeologists as well. Odyssey would also like to reiterate that we hope the near future will permit further dialogue with the SHA so that ultimately we can collaborate in our archaeological goals and further disseminate the wealth of knowledge acquired from shipwrecks.




Ellen Gerth

Curator of Collections

Odyssey Marine Exploration





William Andrefsky, Jr., 12 May 2008


Dear Dr. Pettigrew:


This letter is written in response to The Archaeology Channel‘s video listing “Anthropology Field Notes 6: Shipwrecks – with Odyssey Marine Exploration.” One of the biggest threats to understanding past behaviors, actions, and history based upon the archaeological record is the rapid destruction of the archaeological record by treasure hunters and artifact collectors. The Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) feels that this video supports the exploitation and commercialization of our non-renewable archaeological resources and should be removed from your video library.


The Register of Professional Archaeologists is a listing of archaeologists who have agreed to abide by an explicit code of conduct and standards of research performance. We feel that all archaeologists have a responsibility to design and conduct projects that will add to our understanding of past cultures and/or that will develop better theories, methods, or techniques for interpreting the archaeological record, while causing minimal attrition of the archaeological resource base. Our professional code of conduct explicitly states:


(1.2.e.) An archaeologist shall not knowingly be involved in the recovery or excavation of artifacts for commercial exploitation, or knowingly be employed by or knowingly contract with an individual or entity who recovers or excavates archaeological artifacts or commercial exploitation.


This element of our professional code of conduct is not an attempt to exclude commercial enterprises from doing archaeology. RPA includes professional archaeologist employed with private, government, academic and Tribal organizations. Most registered professional archaeologists in the United States are employed by for-profit entities. This element of our code is to protect our nonrenewable archaeological resources from commercial exploitation by looters, treasure hunters, and antiquities collectors, who unknowingly or knowingly destroy our mutual cultural heritage for personal profit.


Firms like Odyssey Marine Exploration do not abide by ethical standards of professional archaeology. The video “Shipwrecks” is primarily a description of all of the “interesting” and “valuable” artifacts they have excavated at various shipwreck sites. This video promotes exploitation of our limited and nonrenewable resource base. Archaeologists do not excavate sites simply to recover material items. We actively support conservation of the archaeological resource base. This video sends the wrong message about archaeology and heritage values. The Archaeology Channel has a fine record of sharing the discipline of archaeology with the larger public. This video does not meet the standards of archaeology or The Archaeology Channel.



William Andrefsky, Jr.

President, Register of Professional Archaeologists





Roy Martin, 12 May 2008


I have been involved in salvage and recovery for more than forty years and have a poor view of marine archaeologists in general. When I first joined the recovery vessel Droxford in 1964 I had never heard of the profession. Our task was to recover metals from war cargoes, this we managed with only 'in house' expertise.


In 1986 I retired from my post as Managing Director of a leading marine salvor to go back to recovery. Using our own money and contributions from friends and former colleagues three of us set up a company to resume recovery work. As one of our number had done a great deal of research on pre 20th Century wrecks we decided to concentrate on these older shipwrecks.


In 1987 we obtained a licence from the Chinese government to search for, and recover from, a VOC ship. The licence was granted on the condition that we entered into a joint venture with a Chinese (government) salvage company. We used their ship, but provided all of the information, survey equipment and expertise ourselves.


We searched a fairly large area , finding one wreck and very small object. We looked at the wreck, which was of no interest, then put the Chinese divers on the small object. For several dives they reported that the object was a small coral head. As the seabed was of fine silt, our Project Director, himself a former diver, insisted that they repeated the dive: the report was that the object was indeed a coral head, but it was surrounded by shards of porcelain!


Our team stared work and were recovering white porcelain and corroded metal, at that time we thought that we had our VOC wreck. Then in quick succession we found coins, more porcelain and, finally a long gold chain (which did not look Chinese to us). We were told to stop work and this we did.


Little information came out of China, but we were told that the Guangzhou Museum had described the gold chain as being of “gold plated brass chain” and about 5% of the porcelain was dated to the Sung dynasty. There was no mention of the other two hundred or so items. Then along came a group of Australian archaeologists, who knew nothing about us; who, we were told, warned the Chinese not to deal with us.


We made a number of attempts to find out more about the wreck, to no avail. Then several years ago we heard that a team of Chinese archaeologists had, with difficulty, relocated the wreck and were working on it. Had they asked we would have given them the position! Now the whole wreck is said to have been recovered. The Chinese archaeologists say that it was found accidentally by the China Salvage Company working with an unnamed British salvage company. They have refused to enter into any sort of dialogue with us, or give the name of the company and our surveyor and project leader. We have not asked for a cent in compensation, even though the whole exercise cost us a great deal of money.


Without us and other salvors setting out with the right equipment, these wrecks would seldom, if ever, be found. No marine archaeologist sitting at his or her comfortable desk is ever likely to find anything!


I will now get down from my soap box.


Roy Martin






Lu Ann De Cunzo, 19 April 2008


Dear Dr. Pettigrew and Viewers of “Shipwrecks”:


The Archaeology Channel has provided an important educational service to everyone with an interest in archaeology, one which the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA; www.sha.org) applauds. Our officers and board of directors have viewed the “Shipwrecks” video featuring Odyssey Marine Exploration and followed the conversations between Dr. Pettigrew, Faith Haney, and the underwater archaeological community over the past several weeks. We remain dismayed that you have chosen not to remove this video from your library. Salvor firms like Odyssey Marine Exploration are not archaeologists, nor do they abide by the ethical standards of archaeology. Including this video on your site blurs the line between archaeology and commercial exploitation. This is not the archaeological community’s message to the public. In conversations with our colleagues, Dr. Pettigrew highlights the disclaimer ALI posted regarding endorsement of Odyssey’s behavior; however, hosting this video on The Archaeology Channel site implies that treasure hunting is a form of archaeology and it is not.


“Shipwrecks” describes the unidentified debate about shipwrecks as one between “predominantly academic archaeologists” and underwater explorers. This is not the case. The SHA, for example, represents an international group of more than 2,500 archaeologists and historic preservation professionals affiliated with the academy, museums, cultural resource management firms, and government agencies around the world. We are the largest professional organization that focuses on the archaeology of contact and historic period archaeological resources. The Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology is affiliated with SHA, and we count several hundred underwater archaeologists among our members, including a large number of international scholars that manage submerged cultural heritage for their respective countries; they, too, are dismayed by the message this program projects. The SHA statement of ethical principles includes the following: “Items from archaeological contexts shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods, and it is unethical to take actions for the purpose of establishing the commercial value of objects from archaeological sites or property that may lead to their destruction, dispersal, or exploitation.” These principles apply to all archaeological sites, whether they are on land or under water.


The fundamental difference between archaeology and treasure salvage is the underlying purpose of the investigation and recovery, and the disposition of the collections. Wherever it is undertaken, archaeology is about knowledge, not about artifacts as commodities or as vehicles of personal economic gain. Artifacts are studied in context; archaeology is the story of their relationships. “Shipwrecks” presents a catalogue of rare, attractive, and valuable artifacts recovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration. It is not clear whether the artifacts are for sale. What will be their ultimate disposition? Archaeologists also ask, how can viewers access the artifacts and the analyses of them? What has been learned about the past from these shipwrecks and their contents? “Shipwrecks” presents a hunt for artifacts, one that leaves viewers asking “so what”? In the end, “Shipwrecks” is not about what we can learn but about what we can find. And that’s not archaeology.




Lu Ann De Cunzo, Ph.D., RPA

Professor of Anthropology and American Material Culture

University of Delaware

Newark, DE 19716

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.





Jason Williams, 13 March 2008


I was encouraged to see your piece on Odyssey Marine Exploration's archaeological collections. It offers a refreshing perspective on a persistently divisive debate about what constitutes legitimate marine archaeology.


Specifically, many archaeologists seem to deem any data collected by commercial salvage operations as, by definition, beyond the academic pale.


It's a position with which I beg to differ.


Indeed, it's a point of view that appears to have been rendered functionally obsolete by two recent developments:


1) The emergence of marine salvage companies that use best archaeological practices in the course of their business operations;


2) The ongoing and rapidly accelerating destruction of underwater archaeological sites by the dredging, fishing, cable laying and oil & mineral industries.


To the first point:


As someone who has been a witness to hundreds of archaeological digs in different parts of the world (on land and underwater) and, moreover, as someone who has personally viewed thousands of hours of Odyssey Marine Exploration's (OME) sub-sea operations, I can safely say that the quality of OME's work -- all of which is supervised by a team of qualified archaeologists -- is of the very highest order.


It is also conducted on a truly remarkable scale. OME has mapped thousands of square miles of ocean floor. It has discovered and surveyed over a thousand shipwreck sites; dozens more - from WWII U-boats to Graeco-Roman era traders - have been mapped with a geo-spatially accurate photo-mosaic technology that is the envy of marine archaeologists around the world.


Moreover, the vast majority of these sites remain untouched by OME. Artifact collection is always the exception, not the rule, and only occurs after a rigorous site assessment and under archaeological supervision and direction.


To the second:


The current state of preservation at many of the sites where OME currently operates is so degraded that conditions mandate immediate salvage archaeology. Many such sites have been profoundly damaged by the indiscriminate use of deep-water trawling nets. These nets, some of which now trawl the ocean floor at depths close to 2,000m (http://www.noc.soton.ac.uk/obe/PROJECTS/DEEPSEAS/trawlingimpactbed.html), are literally scarifying once intact archaeological sites.


Redeposition and actual destruction are now everyday occurrences.


One wreck, carefully surveyed and excavated by OME in 2003, was almost unrecognizable when a return trip was made to the site two years later. But, fortunately for scholars and others, OME's pre-disturbance site survey and artifact collection has provided an enduring record of the site for years to come.


In summation, the deep ocean floor is facing as profound a set of challenges as any of the most threatened archaeological sites on earth. However, unlike in Iraq or in FARC-controlled Colombia, it's still possible to do something about recovering the story of human maritime history before it's too late.

And, while companies like OME may not be the archaeological community's custodian of choice, they do possess the means and the will to preserve and record archaeological data on the almost epic scale required by the task at hand.


Certainly, it's a challenge that no nation state - nor any academic institution - has yet shown itself willing to meet.


Jason Williams


Jason Williams is the multiple Emmy Award-winning President of JWM Productions. With over one hundred hours of archaeological films to his credit, he is best-known in the archaeological community for his work in helping secure the Baghdad Museum's Nimrud artifacts during the US invasion of Iraq. He has also worked extensively with Odyssey Marine Exploration and is presently developing a television series based on a series of new archaeological finds made by the company in the northeastern Atlantic.





Tom King, 7 March 2008


Dear TAC --


I want to applaud you for running Faith Haney's Anthropology Field Notes 6 featuring Odyssey Marine Exploration. I've interacted with Odyssey and one of its founders, Greg Stemm, for many years -- most recently as a member of an executive group of archaeologists set up jointly by Odyssey and the British Ministry of Defense to provide advisory oversight of work on the shipwreck thought to be the Sussex. I've found Greg to be a very original thinker, and I think Odyssey holds out considerable hope for the future of commercial-based deep-water archaeology.


I'm sure that you'll take a beating from many archaeologists who prefer to dismiss commercial shipwreck salvage as something inherently evil, with which archaeologists must have no truck. It's a strange position for ostensible scientists to take, but as a matter of formal policy, such organizations as the Society for Historical Archaeology and the Registry of Professional Archaeologists seek to prohibit interaction between their members and commercial exploration firms. People and organizations that adopt this kind of position are seldom willing to debate or justify their points of view, of course, but the anti-salvage argument seems to rest on two legs:


1. Individuals should not own artifacts; ergo, "traffic" in artifacts is evil; and


2. It is impossible for commercial underwater firms like Odyssey to do good archaeology, even if they were NOT selling artifacts. They ALWAYS are destructive.


Most of us have probably gone through phases in our professional lives in which we subscribe to the first of the above arguments, but most of us grow up. People like to own nifty things from the past, and some such things -- like coins from shipwrecks -- have definite commercial value. Trying to prohibit "traffic" in them is like trying to prohibit the consumption of alcohol. A far wiser course of action would be some kind of regulation that distinguishes what can be sold from what shouldn't be, and seeks to maintain information on artifacts that move into the stream of commerce. Critics of Faith's piece might do well to look at Odyssey's approach to this issue, which -- at least officially -- permits only manufactured items like coins to be sold, only after analysis and description, and with records rather assiduously maintained as to ownership and long-term management. The more "cultural" contents of a wreck -- its architecture, its crew's personal items, and so on -- are kept together for curation.


As for the possibility of doing good archaeology, I can only say that Odyssey's fieldwork, as I've seen it demonstrated and described in research designs and project plans, seems to me to be superior to virtually anything I've seen even on dry land. Very tight control is maintained of provenience, and a unique system for both excavation and documentation makes it possible to produce a far more complete record of an Odyssey excavation than is characteristic of archaeological projects. I'd be surprised if the system worked perfectly all the time; there are doubtless lapses and mistakes, but it's a rare field project anywhere that doesn't experience lapses and mistakes.


Of course, we can't see into the future; maybe in the long run it IS impossible to do high-quality commercial archaeology. But mainstream archaeology, as done in museums and academic institutions, has its share of black sheep and dirty linen, too. We try to set up systems, procedures, and standards to deal with such issues and keep the level of research quality high. I think we should do the same with commercial archaeology, underwater and on land. Engage its practitioners, work with them, seek high standards. Thundering at one another about avoiding contact with the unclean heathen only guarantees that terrible work will be done, and archaeology will be the loser. TAC and Faith are to be congratulated for your clear-sightedness in bringing Odyssey's work to the attention of your viewers.


Tom King





Simon Geerlofs, 4 March 2008


Kudos to Faith for being willing to stick her neck out by bringing us stories of these discoveries; I hope it inspires a civil conversation. The ethical debate between academic archaeologists and companies that profit from their archaeological finds has truly become polarized. It takes courage to walk in both camps, and to recognize that the public has a right to see Odyssey's finds, even if the archaeological community doesn't always agree with the motivations behind their recovery. I commend The Archaeology Channel for running this show.


There are so many interesting ethical questions associated with shipwreck archaeology. Should we even explore shipwrecks in the first place? Who has a right to explore, and what is the proper motivation for that exploration? Who benefits from discovery in the for-profit model, who in the academic model? Is there ever a commercial justification for excavating an archaeological site--or to phrase it a different way, should we leave millions of dollars of gold on the ocean floor? And finally, what's the point of shipwreck exploration anyway? Isn't it to inspire wonder in the public for the past? If not for the public, then who? Is it for the archaeologists--and if so, why should they expect taxpayers to fund their projects? Is it for collectors--then why should they expect governments to allow excavation?


I'm not sure if there are right answers here, but most people would recognize that a middle ground exists--and it involves ensuring that for-profit archaeologists do best science and that education and outreach are a focus of academic and for-profit archaeology both. Shipwrecks are intensely interesting and don't do the world much good if left to rot on the ocean bottom. In my mind, funding for academic and agency archaeology depends on an engaged and interested public (and as we all know, underwater archaeology isn't cheap). Video has enabled agency and academic archaeologists to share shipwrecks with the public without actually disturbing the artifacts. And for-profit firms have used both video and artifacts to tell their story to the public. If some artifacts are sold to collectors to fund future projects and thereby improve the public's understanding of the past, is that so bad? Is it worse than choosing to divert taxpayer and university dollars to the purely academic endeavor of shipwreck documentation rather than any number of competing priorities?


Maybe we need some kind of golden rule of shipwreck exploration: treat shipwrecks with respect, do good science, share your discoveries with the public, find ways to do more work and make even more interesting discoveries.


Those are just my two cents. Thanks again for the good work.


Simon Geerlofs

Marine Program Coordinator

Northwest Straits Commission