Exploring the Future of Undersea Evacuation

by Sarah Mich:

Halfway around the world from the beaches of California, a ship that carried the secret to an ancient trade route rests quietly on the ocean floor. The vessel is an Arab dhow, not more than 20 meters long, crafted from planks tied together with pieces of stout twine. When it sank off the coast of Indonesia 12 centuries ago, its hull filled with Chinese ceramics, it was bound for modern-day Iraq.

But in March of this year, the dhow began making waves once more, this time in international headlines. More than a decade after the ship’s discovery, the Smithsonian Institution made plans to host an exhibit of artifacts from the sunken vessel, entitled “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,” to open in 2012. As the exhibition nears its start date, though, several curators and archaeologists at the Smithsonian have turned a critical eye to the artifacts and the methods used to procure them. Their skepticism arose from the fact that commercial salvagers, the modern, industrial version of treasure hunters, had recovered the ship.

The dhow’s discovery in 1998 reverberated through the archaeological world for its historical significance. The location of the wreck in the Java Sea proved, for the first time, the existence of a maritime Silk Road as early as the 9th century. But its discovery also thrust a spotlight on unsettled differences between archaeological and salvage communities. Paul Johnston, a Smithsonian curator, expressed doubt that the ship’s 60,000 artifacts could have been procured by proper scientific means in less than two years. Many archaeologists and museum curators share the concern that in the case of this dhow, and similar underwater excavations, commercial motives have begun to overpower traditional archaeological methods of exploration, to the detriment of the historical and cultural value of the artifacts.


Modern commercial salvage companies face far more regulation than treasure hunters of the past. Their image, however, is invariably tied to the thrill, riches, and recklessness that Blackbeard and his cohorts popularized in public imagination. “People think we’re out here to plunder gold,” said Sharon Wiley, director of media relations at Mel Fisher’s Treasures, a Florida-based salvage company that began excavating a Spanish galleon, Nuestra Señora de Atocha, in 1985. Twenty-five years later, the Atocha is a $500 million enterprise, and the company has hired employees, like Wiley, who groom its brand and maintain that the financial and emotional thrill of the hunt is only a sliver of the story.

Salvage companies also emphasize that their focus on historical value governs operational practices. Tilman Walterfang, the German explorer who discovered the Arab dhow and subsequently formed Seabed Explorations, a New Zealand-based salvage company, has upheld the merits of responsible salvage while condemning treasure-hunters who “destroy the valuable cultural information of a wreck before anyone can collect it in a database for posterity.” At the outset of the dhow excavation, Walterfang hired Australian archaeologist Michael Flecker to ensure that the work was thorough:

Archaeological divers face competition these days from salvage companies. (NOAA Photo Library/Flickr)

“We recovered artifacts, conserved all of them, researched for six years, and invited scholars from all over the world. We did all that we could do.” Seabed’s research produced two treatises totaling 950 pages that catalogue the artifacts’ history and preservation. Walterfang sold the research and 53,000 pieces of the collection to the Singaporean government in 2005 for $32 million dollars.

So why are commercial salvage companies frequently on the defensive? Wiley commented that archaeologists have not acknowledged the rigor of salvage operations. “Right now there is a big disjoint between what we do and what they think we do,” she said. “We use utmost integrity on the wreck sites. If they would see how we run the operation, we might be able to collaborate.” But for years archaeologists have refused the company’s invitations to view salvage operations.

Yet it seems indisputable that commercial salvage companies are primarily efficiency-minded and profit-driven. Gold and jewels adorn the homepage of the Mel Fisher’s Treasures website, and Fisher himself is pictured in a white linen suit standing in ankle-deep water and dangling a gold chain between outstretched hands. A code of excavation ethics, however, is notably absent from the site.


For the Australian National Maritime Museum, now in its twentieth year, Walterfang’s discovery would have been a noteworthy show. “We were offered that exhibit, and we turned it down,” said curator Kieran Hofty. “The Singapore collection is not intact, and when you break up a collection, you lose information.”

The goal of preserving information, in whatever form it may take, distinguishes the archaeological profession from its commercial counterpart. While commercial salvage companies will always excavate a given site after receiving proper authorization, archaeologists take a more nuanced approach. Only in some cases will archaeologists elect to excavate a site. If a wooden shipwreck has been exposed through a layer of silt, scientists will conserve the material on land to prevent the organic material from decomposing within months. But they will often opt to leave a less vulnerable site undisturbed to preserve its contextual integrity.

Financial constraints in the field have also led archaeologists to adopt more conservative practices than their commercial counterparts. Before an excavation can take place, archaeologists spend months or years on grant proposals to obtain funding from the National Science Foundation, institutions, and private entities. The often self-financed ventures of private salvage companies can proceed with excavations as soon as their permits are approved. Dr. Silvano Jung, an underwater archaeologist who studies sunken aircraft in Australia, cautioned against this expediency: “underwater sites are the ultimate non-renewable resource.” Nothing, he said, should be rushed.


For much of the past century, a jumble of national and international laws regulated underwater archaeology, and implementation was even more arbitrary. But in a 2001 meeting, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

(UNESCO) developed a set of provisions to protect underwater cultural heritage sites from the threats posed by a lack of international standards.

The UNESCO Convention, adopted in 2009 and so far ratified or accepted by 37 countries, pledges to preserve sites of cultural heritage, protect them from commercial exploitation, and keep sites in situ whenever possible.

Even among countries that have ratified the Convention, however, compliance is far from guaranteed. Governments issue permits, police their territorial waters, and have the power to buy or receive a share of the artifacts following an excavation. Faced with this conflict of interest, governments may seek to promote tourism, favor development over archaeology, and take treasure profits. Many countries in Southeast Asia are notorious for hasty and unregulated excavations.


Viewed contextually, the wholesale condemnation of commercial salvage seems too simple a route. Indeed, while archaeologists plug away at excavations and new discoveries, some historical treasures may remain forever uncovered without the intervention of commercial interests. And sometimes, time is of the essence: Dr. John Hale, an archaeologist at the University of Louisville, predicts that the Titanic will collapse on itself within decades, consumed by iron-eating bacteria.

Commercial interests operate with a level of profit-driven urgency—and funding— that allow incredible discoveries to be made. Neither are commercial companies uninterested in cooperation with their academic colleagues. “With sensitive management and good strategies, there are more ways to approach this than black and white, purist and mercenary,” Walterfang said. “Recent controversies and legal developments have triggered some discussion, though when it will lead to dialogue, I do not know.”


In the midst of thousands of silver coins and the world’s best-cut emeralds, the crew excavating the Atocha discovered something else: The ship did not have to sink. The nails used to hold the ship together were too short and its ribs too thin. In short, the king’s contractors “supplied substandard parts,” Hale said. “The Spanish Empire foundered and went under because it couldn’t get the treasure home effectively, in part because of its own contractors and builders. It’s the mentality of personal profit first, with communal effort far down the list.”

With thousands of artifacts awaiting their Smithsonian debut, the museum held a conference on underwater archaeology in late April, the results of which may help govern future excavations. But the history of the Atocha should not be lost on the Arab dhow. In this community of underwater explorers, the challenge of fostering dialogue and amicable cooperation between all stake-holding parties persists. It will take a concerted effort between archaeologists and commercial salvagers to ensure that history might not be lost in a sea of conflicting interests.

Sarah Mich ‘12 is an American Studies major in Saybrook College. Contact her at sarah.mich@yale.edu.