Thursday, 9 January 2014

At the bottom of the sea -- part 2

Pirate Flag (Jolly Roger)
image: Oren neu dag
Odyssey Marine Exploration is best known for two wrecks. The link gives a summary of how each was treated, respectively, by the governments of Spain and the UK. Although it states that the company is privately owned, this is incorrect -- it is a public company (NASD: OMEX). More accurate details of the wreck of the Spanish Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes can be found here. I give the first link mainly to contrast the treatments of Spain and the UK to the company. Although Spain had condemned Odyssey as pirates, many have pointed out that seizing the ship and arresting its captain for performing a salvage operation in international waters without permission from the country where the salvage ship was registered is a far clearer case of piracy. The involvement of the U.S. State Department was especially interesting to me as I had been involved in the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild's fight against the same to protect American collectors from having imported coins seized in accordance with secret agreements between the State Department and countries making claim on such coins. These seizures have been described as "extra-legal" by many legal authorities. In the case of the Spanish action, public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of Odyssey Marine Exploration. Although winning the legal cases, Spain managed to perform a PR goof of monumental proportions.

How Odyssey will handle Spanish wrecks in the future is anyone's guess, but I think it likely that they will at least think twice about such salvage operations. As they are far more than a salvage company and handle each wreck not only in accordance with the best archaeological recording practices, but with state of the art equipment and a highly knowledgeable team, Spain might end up being the real loser after all. These sort of operations cost millions to accomplish -- far more than any country would be willing to pay "on spec". Odyssey has taken marine archaeology to levels never before accomplished by using a business model, and this seems to offend some academics who perhaps have little experience in real-world situations and pragmatism. I can only think that such academics are engaging in a rather selfish and greedy "turf-war".

One of the  important aspects of Odyssey's operation is salvage archaeology, all of these wrecks are being damaged by ongoing bottom trawling by fishing vessels, mostly of the "factory-ship" category. In one of the Discovery Channels's episodes we see how the heaviest bronze cannons ever made were dragged considerable distance by such nets (which weigh several tons). These nets can utterly destroy a fragile wreck. The damage is somewhat akin to the damage to archaeological sites on land through deep ploughing which breaks up the hard layer caused by the repeated use of heavy machinery in fields. Deep ploughing  is often essential to farming and is not any sort of ecological disaster -- more the opposite, in fact. The Odyssey spokesman seemed rather sympathetic to the fisherman trying to make a living. I would not have been sympathetic at all, as the ecological damage caused by bottom trawling is a global disaster. I will have much more about this in another post in this series.

Tomorrow, we will look at the cultural heritage of treasure hunting and its value to the psyche.

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