Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ships: Historical Turning Point?

Or simply fair practice? These are the questions those of us with an interest in marine history have to ask ourselves - and will no doubt speculate upon for years to come - as the case of the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes now comes to its inevitable conclusion.

La Nuestra, whose name means "Our Lady of the Mercies" in English, was sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in the Battle of Cape Santa Maria on October 5, 1804. She lay below wave, without any serious attempts by the Spanish government to locate her, until 2007. In that year she was discovered, claimed and excavated by the marine recovery company Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Odyssey, who has worked with various governments in the past including the U.S. and Britain, has also been vilified by others. One Odyssey team was famously - and publicly - fired upon by the French navy. The entire event was captured on film for a piece on The Discovery Channel. Odyssey's most pivotal stand off with any government came when Spain claimed the excavation of La Nuestra to be an "expoliation" or illegal grab of the country's "historical artifacts." Spain filed a suit in U.S. court and a judge in Florida's Federal Court of Appeals ruled that all artifacts attached to La Nuestra officially belonged to Spain.

The enormous trove, which included gold and silver coins in the hundereds of thousands as well as jewelry, religious statuary and furnishings, was officially handed over to Spain by Odyssey in February of this year.

While, on the face of it, this seems only fair, the ruling of the Florida judge could effectively sound the death knell for exploration of the kind Odyssey is so very expert at. Why should Odyssey or any other company spend their own money amounting to millions of dollars to locate, identify, excavate, clean et cetera any ship and its cargo when the ultimate outcome will yeild them zero in the way of profit? We are none of us prepared to work that hard for "free." Risking life and limb to bring forth the world's maritime history should have some pay off, shouldn't it?

Meanwhile, imagining that government's like Spain's would be willing to partner with companies like Odyssey is most probably a pipe dream. Where, just exactly, would the money come from? There's a reason why Odyssey is out finding shipwrecks and the many governments who can claim them as artifacts are not.

It is far easier to pounce in a court filing after all the hard work is done. A judge in Florida has made it possible for any other country to do the same thing. Precedent, legally speaking, is precedent.

On a final note, this very brief article from ABC News makes it quite clear, without coming out and saying so, that Spanish authorities basically have no idea what they will do with their haul. At this point, some of the artifacts will be put on display. From there, it appears to be anyone's guess.

Header: Four Frigates Capturing Spanish Treasure Ships October 5, 1804 by Francis Sartorius c 1807 via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Sounds pretty bogus to me,Pauline. I guess the lesson here is that if you find a shipwreck, don't tell anyone about it and sell what you find as quietly as possible. And if you find a ship from Spain, better leave it where it lies...

Pauline said...

Having studied archaeology, and participated in more than one dig, I have a pretty clear idea of the international laws governing artifacts. Treasure hunting, however, has previously been outside those laws but this finding on the part of a U.S. appeals court seems to change that, to my mind. Since treasure hunting has often been focused on marine artifacts, we may see a (swift?) decline in the revelation of same. And that means everybody - not just citizens of the country from whence the shipwreck originated - loses out on learning more about the world's nautical history. It seems to me the real culprit here is the legal system. But then what's new about that?

Blue Lou Logan said...

To get to an archaeological site on land, you might need a pickup truck. To dig, you sit in the dirt with a trowel. To preserve, you put your artifact in a Ziplock bag.

To get to an archaeological site at sea, you need a boat, perhaps a rather large boat. To dig, you have to dive with tanks and use a hose with compressed air. To preserve, you will need specialized holding tanks.

These are drastic simplifications, but the point is this: Underwater archaeology is dramatically more logistically complex than 'regular' archaeology, which in turn makes it more expensive. Not many universities are going to have the funding to maintain a fleet, a staff of professional divers, and a lab big enough to handle cannons and anchors. "Treasure hunters," on the other hand, being private ventures, DO.

It's not just that Spain will have no idea what to do. It's also that the label "treasure hunter" has to be removed. They are practicing careful applied archaeology, and whether it's Odyssey or Barry Clifford, they are the best men out there, perhaps the only men out there, who can do the job.

Pauline said...

I agree 110% Lou. Unfortunately, we may see a downturn in these sort of discoveries for all the reasons you mentioned. Or that's my fear, anyway.