The Impact of Commercial Exploitation on the Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage


  • Tatiana Villegas Zamora

    1. Tatiana Villegas is a Colombian underwater archaeologist who has worked on the development of underwater cultural heritage protection in her own and other developing countries over the last ten years. She is an international tutor for the Nautical Archaeological Society (NAS) and specializes in the field of training and awareness-raising. As part of the Colombian delegation and as a member of ICUCH, she participated in four governmental expert meetings (1996–2001) which studied the draft of the 2001 UNESCO Convention.
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It is impossible to talk about underwater cultural heritage and not reflect upon the problem of the commercial exploitation of submerged archaeological sites. The romantic notion of the search for lost treasure embodied in books and popular movies such as the Indiana Jones series takes on a different aspect when we consider that treasure hunting has become one of the most dangerous and devastating threats to the preservation of underwater cultural heritage. Fishing communities, irresponsible sport divers collecting souvenirs or modern-day salvors often equipped with high technology are destroying this newly accessible and rich heritage. Their sole motivation is commercial profit without any concern for archaeological research, preservation of cultural and historical values or the potential for sustainable development involving cultural tourism for the benefit of coastal populations. This article will try to present an overview of the scope of site destruction by commercial exploitation, the loss of scientific information and the strategies used to convince governments and deceive public opinion.


Exploring the ocean depths has been one of humanity’s most persistent dreams throughout history, second only to flying. Alexander the Great is thought to have descended into the sea in a glass cage while there is evidence of attempts to reach the famous Armada shipwrecks1 in Ireland, using a diving bell, as early as 1683. In England, in 1836, John Dean recovered cannons from the wreck of the Mary Rose.2 However, these events were isolated and had minimal impact in terms of preservation of the historical value of the sites concerned. The dream only became a reality with the invention of the SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) during the Second World War.

Today, highly specialized technology for detecting the presence of foreign objects under the seabed, previously only available to the military and the oil exploration industry, is now relatively accessible to anyone who can afford it. The variety of equipment – side-scan sonar, magnetometers, sub-bottom profilers, submersibles and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles, some mechanical arms and hands that can grab objects and place them in baskets even at great depths) – underscores the reality that submerged cultural sites are no longer protected by the natural inaccessibility of their environment.

Figure 5.

 A fifteenth-century French manuscript portraying Alexander the Great inside a glass cage.

Two distinct groups have access to modern technology for the exploration of underwater cultural sites. On the one hand, the archaeological community, conscious of the cultural and historic value of this heritage, develops techniques to carry out scientific archaeological surveys, analysis, registration, interpretation and conservation of sites. Underwater archaeologists around the world create programmes on the basis of international standards, cooperation, capacity building and research to build a critical mass of experts to help identify the technical means to best protect this unique heritage. Their progress is slow but sustainable. On the other hand, commercial salvors and treasure hunters search for sites containing commercially exploitable goods. This group has increased enormously in number over the past twenty years. Moreover, ‘technology has developed much faster than the appreciation of wrecks’ cultural value’.3 As a result, the public is far more aware of technological developments than of the importance of the sites themselves. However, technology is only one aspect of the research involved. This article seeks to clarify further the different approaches, motivations and goals of these very different actors.

Archaeology versus commercial exploration

Romantic notions of the search for lost treasure, embodied in adventure books and popular movies such as the Indiana Jones series or National Treasure, takes on a different aspect when we realize that commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage has become the most dangerous and devastating threat to preserving this legacy to humanity.

Salvors and treasure hunters recover commercially valuable objects such as jewels, coins, navigation instruments, fragile porcelain and other antique objects, with total disregard for the archaeological, cultural and historical value of the site, which they ignore as an entity. From an archaeological perspective, a place where a ship has sunk is a ‘site’, encompassing the complete area where elements of the structure, rigging or artefacts may have ended up after the wreckage. All contain potentially precious information. This explains why archaeologists take the necessary time to accurately register and record the exact location of every element within a pre-established framework and evaluate the associations between the structure and the contents. Samples of substances found in containers and organic materials such as wood are taken to laboratories to be dated and examined by experts who, through analysis, can determine the geographical origin of the wood and even the time when it was felled. Similarly, analysis, survey and registration of all elements of hulls and their fittings can fill gaps in knowledge concerning shipbuilding. Weapons and artillery can provide information about defence and battle strategies; fabrics and other organic elements can help define the clothes worn by sailors and officers; and the study of bones can tell us much about health conditions at a particular moment in history. Lastly, the position and inclination of the objects provide crucial data which can help uncover the exact circumstances leading to the wreck. In short, the structure and content of the ship are interrelated and their systematic, interdisciplinary analysis provides a wealth of information about life and society at the time of navigation.

For archaeologists, the priority is to understand the site through interpretation and hypotheses based on the discoveries made. After investigation, the sites are physically and legally protected. Time allows archaeologists to perform meticulous inspections of sites, increasing the possibility of obtaining detailed information. For commercial salvors, time is money and valuable artefacts have to be found and sold as quickly as possible to provide backers with a return on their investment.

Fortunately, there has been enormous progress made towards an understanding of the importance of the archaeological context as a whole and the interrelations of all elements of a site. Indiscriminate extraction of artefacts without a serious survey and archaeological analysis destroys all possibilities of interpretation. Re-examination is fundamental to scientific research and can only be achieved if any disturbance to the site is recorded in its most infinite detail. Any isolated object ‘out of context’ loses forever its potential to provide information.

Modus operandi of salvors and treasure hunters

Salvors and treasure hunters alike frequently boast that their actions save wrecks from destruction by nature or human activity, and that they alone possess the technology to explore wrecks at great depth. In fact, the state of preservation of submerged archaeological sites is often excellent compared to land sites.4 Through the years, the structure, after the initial shock of collision with the seabed and immediate degradation by currents and wood-boring organisms, settles on the ground and is covered by sediment and sand. Eventually, the site lies under layers of sediment where low levels of light, oxygen and temperature preserve organic material much better than on land, creating a stable situation that may last countless years. The natural environment thus protects sites. Scientists have proved that deep-sea wrecks in particular are even better preserved by their environment and are by no means endangered by nature.

The possibility of amateur looters such as fishermen or recreational divers travelling to deep-sea locations is also highly unlikely. The real threat to deep-sea sites is in fact programmed action by salvors themselves. Regarding destruction by ‘accidental’ actions, such as infrastructural coast development, pipelines or telephone cables, the concerned companies are in fact making efforts to minimize the impact of their work and are being increasingly respectful towards cultural sites by including pre-disturbance archaeological surveys in their development programmes, thus in many places assisting the development of underwater archaeology.

Another major difference in approach is that, from the archaeological perspective, the discovery of a site does not necessarily lead to excavation. Often, a pre-disturbance survey and video record are sufficient to decide that the site is not in danger and that the natural conditions in which it has been found will remain stable over the long-term. In these instances, there is no sustainable reason for excavation for the present moment. The site can be protected in situ for future study and may even be visited by controlled, non-intrusive forms of tourism such as underwater trails. Treasure hunting, by definition, ignores the principle that in situ preservation of cultural heritage should be considered as the preferred option. Professional salvors often assert that they have the financial resources to fund the exploration of sites that would otherwise go unrecorded. The statement that archaeologists and scientific institutions cannot afford underwater exploration may easily be refuted by examples of serious archaeological programmes such as those in Argentina, Sri Lanka and Croatia.5 Moreover, since the technology used for deep-sea exploration was first exploited for military defence purposes and by the oil industry, most navies are equipped to carry out inventories of submerged archaeological sites, even at great depths. If a country is conscious of the need to protect its underwater cultural heritage, scientific work can be carried out with existing technology belonging to government and military institutions at lower costs and for the benefit of all.

Legal coverage


Several international legal instruments have been created to harmonize the assistance provided to vessels and their cargoes in distress at sea. The 1989 London International Salvage Convention,6 for example, applies to events at sea in which a ship in peril can be salvaged and the company charged with the operation seeks to recover property for the purpose of obtaining a reward based on its commercial value. Many salvors defend their activities as being covered by the 1989 Convention. Unfortunately, this Convention assumes that the Law of Salvage applies to the recovery of ‘maritime cultural property’ unless the state concerned chooses to exclude it.7 Since it does not specifically define the age of the property or the relevant skills of the salvor, the activities of commercial salvors on archaeological sites can, by interpretation, be covered by the notion of ‘salvage’. This ambiguity is furthermore reinforced by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 (UNCLOS)8 which encourages the protection of archaeological and historical sites,9 but also states that ‘nothing in this article affects the rights of identifiable owners, the law of salvage or other rules of admiralty’. Treasure hunters and salvors disingenuously use these legal notions to justify their actions as saving ships in peril, even though the threat of distress or danger to underwater cultural heritage has long passed.

Figure 6.

Figure 6.

 Graphic illustrating site formation after wreckage.

Figure 6.

Figure 6.

 Graphic illustrating site formation after wreckage.


Since scuba diving and deep-sea exploration techniques were invented in developed countries, the first attempts at treasure hunting and commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage took place in these waters. Consequently, their governments became aware early on of the need to fight this new form of vandalism and to conceive protective legislation.10 This resulted in salvors shifting their activities towards countries where legislation was insufficient or non-existent, often because the issue had not previously arisen. There are numerous examples in Asia, Africa and Latin America; deals are cut with government officials unaware of the historical potential of sites, and concessions are signed between salvage companies and government agencies. The profit is shared between the salvor and the government at varied percentages: this may begin at 50 per cent for each party, but is more likely to be split with 70 per cent going to the salvor and 30 per cent to the government.11 Government officials and cultural managers are duped into believing that this kind of exploration will benefit the country. Once the salvors are underwater, the government concerned can rarely verify the quantity of artefacts raised or the scale of destruction. Highly valuable objects are even carried to separate underwater locations for later recovery. This is particularly the case in countries lacking both an archaeological structure and experts to defend heritage preservation.

Insubstantial financial predictions

The potential ‘value’ of a cargo estimated by salvors can often reach astonishing figures, in one case as much as US$500 million.12 These figures are usually based upon the expected market sale value of the most unique or rare pieces of jewellery (or similar objects) multiplied by the number of artefacts expected. These often speculative and always hypothetical assertions receive widespread publicity, thus attracting new investors. However, they lack scientific support, particularly as no serious evaluation of cargo and conditions can be undertaken without a full archaeological survey. In the end, the financial concerns of investors overtake the importance of the discovery itself.

Auction houses and market demand have also triggered an avalanche of salvors and treasure hunters in places like the South China Sea. Deals are signed on the basis of the eventual sale of artefacts. In the 1980s and early 1990s, following the discoveries of the Atocha and the Titanic, there was unprecedented public interest in sunken objects. The auctions reached their peak, however, and sales started to decline (see the Tek Sing case, below) due to the saturation of certain goods such as porcelain and coins, and an enhanced awareness of ethical standards on the part of collectors.

Finally, salvors often claim to invest in prior research. However, the sums spent in sending researchers or hiring local archival experts to go through manuscripts and ‘bills of lading’ in historical libraries in Seville, London, Manila or Lisbon would not differ from the expenses of a young archaeologist undertaking the same archival work as part of a Masters or PhD programme, either through a scholarship or within the framework of a capacity-building project of public scope and interest.

Scientific veneer, apparent transparency and disinformation

Modern commercial salvors often express their intention to follow appropriate archaeological practice. In reality, they usually hire inexperienced or unscrupulous archaeologists attracted by good wages and the availability of the best state-of-the-art technology.13 These archaeologists naïvely believe that a serious archaeological approach is compatible with commercially inclined exploration. However, experience has proven that archaeological standards are inevitably compromised by the demands of investors and the art market operating under a ‘quick profit’ imperative.

In order to detach themselves from the ‘looting world’, salvage companies have started to make public statements that claim government approval for their activities and disingenuously attack treasure hunters and looters in order to legitimize their own activities. Looting by fishermen and sport divers is certainly a problem, but encouraging professional commercial exploitation of cultural heritage is not the solution. In some cases, UNESCO statistics are cited on salvage company websites that neither openly comply with nor oppose the Organization’s views on heritage protection. Statements are tinted with sufficient archaeological jargon to provide a scientific veneer to enterprises, while museum exhibitions are organized with a portion of the artefacts recovered as a justification. However, the majority of these exhibitions provide no mention of the relationship of the objects to the structure in which they were found, or traces of serious archaeological surveys of the ship’s construction. In the case of the South China Sea, salvors encouraged the trade in Chinese porcelain and hired experts to produce high-level scientific studies on the production of porcelain in ancient times. This expertise raises the price of pieces on the art market, but the lack of an archaeological approach means that porcelain objects are sold as if mass-produced, with broken or ordinary pieces being thrown back into the ocean. The fact that exploration is carried out under the auspices of governments does not scientifically legitimize these activities, which only contribute to the destruction of cultural heritage. Discoveries made in this fashion may increase knowledge of Chinese ancient ceramics and porcelain, but the approach is far from being archaeology and is in essence destructive. Taking only two months to excavate a ship ‘fully’ is like ‘doing surgery with a chainsaw’ (Crisman, 1997). In short, any legalization of commercial salvage under the guise of archaeology forms a dangerous precedent.

The scope of commercial exploitation of sunken cultural heritage

The treasure hunter Robert Marx boasts of ‘having discovered more wrecks and raised more treasures than anybody else’.14 He has disturbed or exploited more than 2,500 wrecks scattered around the globe in more than sixty-two countries. He declares that he finances his obsession with shipwrecks by finding private investors and promising them a return for their money. He explains that the normal split is 75 per cent for himself and his investors and 25 per cent for the government in whose waters he works. He is persona non grata in more than thirty countries.

In 1985 the treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. This famous ship sank during a hurricane off the coast of the Florida Keys in 1622 while carrying precious metals to Spain. There was immediate controversy over property rights as the American Government, through the State of Florida, claimed title to the wreck. Finally, after eight years of litigation, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of Fisher who commercialized and merchandised the artefacts found in the Atocha. Fisher died in 1998 but his sons continue to search for sunken shipwrecks in the Florida waters for commercial purposes. No scientific publications of their activities have reached universities or archaeological institutions.

In 2003 Reuters and the Associated Press published the discovery of a shipwreck in Playa Damas off the Atlantic coast of Panama. The wreck was thought to be one of Columbus’ ships lost during his fourth voyage, making it one of the earliest ever found in the New World (dating from the sixteenth century). The Panama-based treasure-hunting company Investigaciones Maritimas del Istmo, SA (IMDI) has been involved in the salvage operation, making use of a ‘Mailbox’– a highly destructive device – to raise a large collection of artefacts. The Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University proposed a ten-year protocol of cooperation with the Government of Panama in order to study what remained of the site and to establish a capacity-building programme for Central and South America. The protocol never saw the light of day as a result of pressure and lobbying by the salvors, who demanded that the government honour its previous agreements. Panama has since ratified the UNESCO 2001 Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

Panama is not an isolated case. Another famous treasure hunter, Burt Webber Jr, works in the waters of the Dominican Republic. On 24 March 2008 local newspaper Las Mundiales15 and Spanish news agency EFE announced that an American company planned to recover a treasure worth US$150 million from the Banco de la Plata. Once again the evaluation of the cargo is pure speculation.16 Local archaeologists and intellectuals are mobilizing support to oppose the actions of Webber Jr and support the UNESCO 2001 Convention.

The Indian Ocean is not exempt either. In 2005, an article in the newspaper Les Nouvelles17 described the seizure by French customs officials in Mayotte of a container filled with bronze cannons, elephant tusks and miscellaneous objects plundered from an unknown underwater site in the region. François Clavel, a known French treasure hunter, was recognized as the sender of the container. Clavel had been previously accused of espionage in 1998 when his ship Galathée was found excavating a shipwreck site off the west coast of India. He spent several months in a Kerala prison, an experience which did not discourage him. In the Indian Ocean, he was found working on a ship registered under a South African tourist diving company.18 He declared that the retrieved objects came from a site unknown on regional maps, he called the ‘Vines’ reef, which he insisted lay outside state territorial waters. The finds were left in Madagascar while Clavel and his team were permitted to leave the island without giving the exact coordinates of the wreck.

Two thousand ancient shipwrecks are thought to lie in the South China Sea according to the Chinese Archaeological Services. Over the past twelve years, one company alone has exploited more than seven ancient vessels with the sole objective of finding sellable ceramics. The company works within a completely legal framework. Exhibitions are organized19 and the company presents itself as an archaeological provider. However no serious archaeological reports have been presented to underwater archaeology departments of universities around the world simply because those issued lack any scientific value. The government is entitled to 30 per cent of the value of the finds; the rest are auctioned or sold directly by the salvor.20 In one of their reports following a first ‘inspection’ of a site they declared: ‘the Company declined the option to excavate, preferring to look for undamaged sites’.21 No self-respecting archaeologist would utter such a phrase. Meanwhile, government officials issue declarations stating that ‘this rare discovery will help us learn more about our region’s heritage and history’. This is certainly the expectation behind underwater archaeology. Unfortunately, this is neither the function nor purpose of these types of company.

In 1984, the British salvor Michael Hatcher salvaged the Risdam, a VOC Dutch merchant ship sunk in 1727 off the east coast of Malaysia. In 1986, Hatcher extracted tons of porcelain from the Geldermalsen, another VOC Dutch vessel that sank in the South China Sea in 1752. In 1999, before the cameras of British television channel Channel 4, he surveyed an area of 155 km near the island of Gaspar off the coast of Indonesia during which he found the Tek Sing, sunk in 1822 – also known as ‘the Chinese Titanic’. In 2000, 350,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain from the Tek Sing were auctioned in Stugard, Germany. However the outcome of the auction did not meet expectations. Half the lots failed to sell and angry shareholders lashed out at the directors of the Adelaide shipwreck recovery company.22 The manager informed investors that the operation had cost about US$20 million and that they had hoped to make US$25–45 million at the auction. They were left with 189,000 pieces of leftover porcelain and the company’s salvage equipment.

Michael Flecker, another famous salvor operating in the South China Sea, has salvaged several wrecks including the Vaung Tau (sunk in 1690) and the Binh Thuan, a Chinese junk sunk in 1608, both in southern Viet Nam. He is also responsible for “salvaging” the Intan, a tenth-century wreck, the Belitong, a ninth-century wreck and the Java Sea, a thirteenth-century wreck, all sunk in the waters of Indonesia. No scientific and archaeological publications exist of the ships’ structures and construction characteristics. However, Flecker presents his discoveries at scientific symposia where experts in ceramics from the British Victoria and Albert Museum and CNRS in France or known scientists from China present papers on Chinese ceramics.23 It is understandable then that the cultural authorities of countries where these kinds of event take place may consider salvors as scientists and naïvely continue to support their activities.

During 2007, French customs officials confiscated more than 2,000 objects and arrested several individuals charged with pillage of underwater sites. In December during a two-day raid on a warehouse in Languedoc-Roussillon, 900 objects were found, ranging from Gallo-romaine amphora to eighteenth-century cannons. Five treasure hunters were charged with looting underwater cultural heritage. French underwater archaeologists estimate that there are more than 20,000 shipwrecks in their metropolitan territorial waters24 of which only 1,250 have been scientifically studied by underwater archaeologists.

Along the African coast in Mozambique off the east coast and Cape Verde on the west – and around the coast of Indonesia in Asia, one salvage company alone has disturbed more than 150 shipwrecks sites over the past thirteen years. This unique source of information for construction and navigation techniques as well as commercial routes to and from Asia around the African continent is being lost under the legal framework of concessions given by different governments. These activities have been highly criticized by the scientific community worldwide but nothing as yet has been done to stop such actions.

There is however hope since the advent of the most widely-covered scandal linked to salvage of underwater cultural heritage in European waters: the Odyssey-Spain case. Odyssey Marine Explorations25 announced the discovery in May 2007 of a shipwreck containing 17 tons of silver and gold artefacts, including 500,000 coins. Odyssey had been contracted in 2001 by the British Royal Naval Museum26 to find HMS Sussex, a British 80-gun flagship active during the war between France and England that sank in 1694 off the coast of Gibraltar. The company received authorization to carry out survey operations in the territorial waters of Spain exclusively to locate the Sussex for the British Naval Museum. During the course of their research they found another vessel (code-named the Black Swan) and quietly flew the extracted artefacts to Tampa in Florida, before disclosing the discovery. Odyssey, citing the need to keep looters away, refused to give the exact location of the wreck, claiming that it lay in international waters and thus no legal instrument obliged them to provide this information.27 However, Spanish historians and archaeologists believe that this wreck is the 36-gun Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish ship of war destroyed in battle in 1804 by the English. Spanish officials filed a suit in the United States to force disclosure of the wreck location, block future recovery, and claim the already extracted artefacts. Spain is currently fighting an international legal battle against Odyssey to regain this cultural heritage based on sovereign immunity of their warships. They have launched a national investigation and issued search and arrest warrants against Odyssey’s two exploration ships. Odyssey intends its haul to be dealt with under US federal law, where previous judgements have sometimes granted exclusive rights to salvors. Archaeologists believe that Odyssey was in fact deliberately looking for this particular wreck and two others, having undertaken archival research.28 To complicate matters, on 19 August 2008, Peru filed a suit against Odyssey at the Tampa court, claiming a right to the treasure as the coins found (if the wreck is the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes) correspond to the reign of Charles IV of Spain and were minted in Peru.29

The salvage operations described above, which are by no means exhaustive, have led to the destruction and dispersion of archaeological objects and the loss of this cultural heritage to scientists and particularly to the people of the countries from which it came. These ‘treasures’ now reside on the shelves of collectors or lie back on the ocean floor out of their archaeological context.


Treasure salvage and professional archaeology have fundamentally opposing goals, methods and consequences. Paul Johnston, a Smithsonian maritime archaeologist, says ‘virtually every professional archaeological and museum association with published ethical guidelines throughout the globe has condemned treasure hunting and issued ethical policies for the treatment of submerged cultural resources’. Underwater cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource and if not protected will soon disappear. Salvors see it as an inexhaustible commercial product. It is not far-fetched to consider most of their activities as modern-day piracy. Public awareness of these unknown aspects of their so called ‘adventures’ is increasing thanks to growing ethical media coverage of situations such as that of Odyssey and the Spanish Government. International press agencies, film producers and television channels must also take some responsibility and reconsider ethical standards before accepting for publication articles glorifying the actions of salvors. They can also examine the possibility of accompanying scientific archaeological operations carried out by professional archaeologists and government agencies. The public interest generated by the discovery of these dramatic moments of history can often overcome the financial obstacles that face scientists.

The cultural value of underwater cultural heritage far exceeds that of the commercial value of shipwrecked cargoes. Museums and cultural managers are now increasingly aware of the potential for sustainable development linked to tourism around shipwrecks and sunken cities. Concerted work between museums, archaeologists, customs officials, cultural managers, local port authorities and journalists can help implement measures to stop the illegal traffic of cultural heritage linked to the underwater world. George Bass, the father of underwater archaeology, says: ‘nobody can name a single country that has ever made money working with treasure hunters. On the contrary, underwater archaeology generates millions of dollars every year in countries that adopted a conservative approach towards their submerged cultural heritage, such as Sweden or Turkey, where both the Vasa and the Bodrum Museum are tourist attractions known worldwide’.

Auction houses and art dealers have to come to terms with the evolution in the significance of cultural heritage and identity and its contribution to the development of a country. They must cease their complicit relationships with salvors and stop accepting artefacts for sale that come from illicit traffic in underwater cultural heritage. Underwater cultural sites are not economic resources and will soon disappear if actions are not taken to stop the activities of salvors and treasure hunters. Private companies cannot excavate major historical archaeological sites on land, or sell artefacts at auction while splitting the proceeds with official government agencies. But all is not lost. Most governments that have in the past fallen into the trap acted in good faith, and are now starting to realize how little benefit accrued to them from these agreements. They are now looking to establish protective national and international measures. It is to be hoped that this can be achieved before much more of humanity’s underwater heritage is lost for good.