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Maritime Law and Treasure Hunting

Over the past century, technology for maritime exploration has allowed for the discovery of countless artifacts previously lost to the world. These artifacts offer crucial insights into human history, from helping historians to map trade routes to allowing scientists to better understand the effects of ocean acidification.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) defines these artifacts as Underwater Cultural Heritage which includes:

“all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which has been partially or totally underwater, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years”.

For better or worse, many sites with significant value in terms of underwater cultural heritage are constituted as artifacts with significant monetary value as well. This has led to the destruction and looting of countless sites by people seeking financial gain through the salvaging of valuable artifacts. These people, widely known as treasure hunters, are responsible for the loss of huge quantities of archaeological materials as they remove artifacts from their archaeological contexts without using methodologically sound excavation techniques. Furthermore, the artifacts recovered by treasure hunters are frequently sold to private collectors without proper recording or publication.

Unfortunately, the public has a long history of backing nefarious treasure hunters, with support ranging from reality TV shows following the exploits of salvage crews to investors pouring millions of dollars into highly organised treasure hunting ventures. For decades, treasure hunting and commercial salvage operations have held the upper hand as many countries have inadequate legislation for the protection of underwater cultural heritage in territorial seas and international waters.

This has resulted in an ethical dilemma between maritime archeologists and commercial salvage operations. With so little regulation, commercial salvage operations were long allowed to operate freely while the archaeological community begged for a higher standard of preservation for marine artifacts. For example, in the 1970s experts claimed that due to a lack of regulation, not a single shipwreck had been left un-looted in Turkish Waters, In the following decades, it also was found that 60 percent of cultural objects from Israel’s territorial waters had already been illegally recovered and dispersed.

The danger this lack of regulation posed led policymakers to propose the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty that put forward a more stringent framework for international maritime law. This treaty first provided states with an obligation to protect underwater cultural heritage. However, the treaty failed to specify details of how sites would be protected and, as a result, future legislation was badly needed to strengthen conservation efforts.

In 2001, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Heritage was held, building on past legislation to enable states to better protect underwater sites. This Convention put forward a framework for cooperation of state parties as well as provided specific standards for dealing with underwater cultural heritage. Most notably the convention proposes that member states no longer allow the commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage. While past legislation allowed this exploitation under the law of salvage or the law of finds, the 2001 Convention proposed that neither law applies to heritage sites unless approved by competent authorities. This Convention marked a huge step forward in the protection of sites from commercial exploitation. However, it failed to lay out intentions for arbitrating quarrels over claims to ownership. As a result, disputes have been common in the years following its proposal.

In 2007, the multi-million dollar treasure hunting operation Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered almost 500 million dollars worth of Gold and Silver at the site of a Spanish shipwreck. Following salvage of the artifacts, Spain presented a claim to the materials as their property according to the law of underwater cultural heritage. Following a court ruling in Tampa, the finds were awarded to the Spanish government as, seemingly, justice was finally served to the treasure hunting operation that the Spanish government deemed 21st Century pirates. Amidst the tumultuous landscape of maritime law, however, the apparent victory could potentially be seen as hollow as much of the archaeological data from the site has already been destroyed. Furthermore, the question remains whether awarding the artifacts to Spain was the most ethically responsible decision as Peruvian officials have also laid claim to the gold and silver that was previously stolen from their land by the Spanish.

Regardless of who ultimately holds claims to underwater cultural heritage, it is imperative that sites be protected from commercial exploitation to prevent the destruction of archaeological data and historical artifacts. Although the ocean holds countless secrets still undiscovered by humankind, underwater cultural heritage is not a renewable resource and therefore must be protected so that knowledge of our past is not destroyed.


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