Finding Treasure and Losing History

Finding Treasure and Losing History is a review of a new show on the Discovery Channel. The review is in Archaeology and has some interesting things to say about the Discovery Channel and the ethics of making a TV show. Here is the first paragraph:

For more than a year, the marine salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration has been embroiled in a legal battle with the government of Spain over the rights to a site they call “Black Swan,” which might hold the most valuable sunken treasure ever recovered. At the same time, underwater archaeologists working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization have succeeded in creating a treaty that bans treasure hunting in the territorial waters of signatory nations (see “A Victory in the War of Wrecks.”) But you won’t hear much about any of that in Treasure Quest a new series on Discovery Channel (Thursdays at 10pm) that takes a completely uncritical look at Odyssey’s business of finding, removing, and selling archaeological artifacts from the ocean floor. As the UNESCO treaty takes effect and legal pressures mount against Odyssey, the Discovery Channel is cashing in on the business of systematically looting shipwrecks.
I haven’t seen the show in question but I find the premise appalling and I am beginning to be very pessimistic about the state of educational TV. There are enough interesting stories out there and plenty of interesting ways to tell them without resorting to reality TV methods and looting archaeological sites. At any rate, follow the link above and read the entire review.

22 Responses

  1. Let’s see, you openly admit you haven’t seen the show, but you’re still confident in saying that Odyssey is “looting archaeological sites.” You remind me of my former students who were still willing to pontificate about a book they admitted to only reading a third of. Your comments are typical of the pointy-headed intellectual arrogance that makes up so much of the noise made by Odyssey’s critics. How about this: watch the show, which details Odyssey’s specific archaeological and conservation practices, then come back and write something other than your shallow, unscientific criticism.
    You honestly think your post says anything meaningful abou this debate? Talk about “appalling”….

  2. In terms of archaeological techniques this:

    It is a bold statement to make when Odyssey’s approach to investigating shipwrecks violates one of the key requirements of science–research results have to be repeatable. If an archaeologist analyzes a collection of artifacts and comes to some conclusions about the history of a shipwreck, it is difficult, if not impossible, to repeat that analysis if the artifacts have been sold off to hundreds of random collectors who may or may not want scholars examining their property. Archaeologists who work on projects where artifacts are put up for sale have made a decision to work outside the ethical codes and standards of the field, and no amount of hi-tech hardware changes that.

    is called pothunting and selling off the looted material to the highest bidder is the exact opposite of conservation. How about this, how about you actually learn something about archaeology and how it’s practiced before you describe glorified pothunting as archaeology.

  3. “archaeological techniques like this”? What would you know of Odyssey’s practices since you admit you haven’t watched the show? You’ve already demonstrated you don’t know anything meaningful about the company, you just latched on to a ridiculous, bitchy review meant to embarrass Discovery.
    Have you even looked at Odyssey’s website?
    In fact, I do know something about marine archaeology, in large part because of Odyssey. You, on the other hand, want a free pass to say whatever you want about the company without providing specifics about what they do that you find so objectionable. Saying they don’t do archaeology is flat-out ignorance.
    There are currently tens of thousands of artifacts sitting in museums and labs all over the world rotting because it’s impossible to study them all or find the resources to do so. Odyssey’s approach is simple: when they find 500,000 coins (as just one example) that are virtually the same, they sell them to collectors to help fund and underwrite future expeditions. These funds also allow for the study and historical documentation of the shipwreck. Historically or archaeologically relevant artifacts are NOT sold by the company. They’re conserved, studied and shared with the public.
    What’s more, academic institutions will *never* be able to afford missions that require expenditures of $30,000 a day. So, rather than allow Odyssey to use it’s experience, funds and technologies to recover deep-ocean historical shipwrecks, you and your kind would rather them to simply be left alone — lost forever to humankind.
    A very sophisticated argument there….

  4. I am quite familiar with companies like Odyssey. Over and above that I am familiar with how marine archaeology is actually practiced. I have pointed out what I think they do wrong as has the article I linked to. Hi-tech pot hunting is hi-tech pot hunting and part of my objection is the fact that they are trying to foist it off on the public as archaeology rather than calling it what it is. Perhaps they can’t justify it morally otherwise. The Discovery Channel should be embarrassed to participate in it.

  5. Well, it’s obvious there’s not going to be an intelligent discussion here.
    My requests for you to provide *specific* examples of how Odyssey fails to do archaeology, or to even back up your claim that they don’t do it at all (which is ridiculously false) are simply met with a single reference to a deeply biased article. You can’t even put your own criticisms into simple English, so, so long and good luck.
    It’s frankly disturbing to me how often folks like you, who claim to be intellectually curious and who love to lecture others about the importance of being open to other ideas, end up being nothing more than people blinded by their own ignorant biases. It’s even more appalling how often this attitude is so well represented in academic circles, where teaching and learning are supposed to thrive.
    I suggest you go back to school and re-learn the key principles involved in scientific inquiry. Otherwise you’re likely doomed to remain on the sidelines.

  6. Let me say one more thing (because I just noticed your quotes section): you should ponder a couple of them more seriously before just flat-out dismissing other approaches to science:
    “Ideology is a poor substitute for rational thought…” ~
    Afarensis (that’s you, right?!)
    …and this:
    “Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul…” ~ Mark Twain
    Failure to even consider ideas opposite your own means (to paraphrase Woody Allen in Manhattan) we never would have advanced past the skull you have on your website banner.
    Think about it….

  7. In other words, since we won’t let treasure and pot hunting appropriate the name of science we are somehow narrow minded? How do you know the article is biased? Other than that is doesn’t sing the praise of some hi-tech treasure hunters?

  8. I have to come down in the middle on this one. What Odyssey does is certainly analogous to pothunting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with what they do.
    Certainly, looting of artifacts with real scientific value is wrong. Digging up Egyptian tombs for treasure, or early man sites for artifacts destroys a lot of valuable scientific and historical data. On the other hand, digging through a modern landfill for recyclable materials (also analogous to pothunting) clearly does not have the same impact.
    So, where is the line drawn? I would personally draw it quite a bit earlier than a couple hundred years ago. There is real value in scientific knowledge and there is real value in money. I think the line has to be drawn where the scientific or historical value is actually worth more than the monetary value of the artifacts. Coins and boxes and old jewelry from a culture not too far removed from our own really have a minor historical value. Just deeming a shipwreck an “archaeological site” does not make it especially valuable, no more so than would making a similar claim about a landfill.

  9. The problem is, though that there are laws governing some of this. The case of the Nuestra Senora de la Mercedes is a case in point. The wreck belongs to Spain and Spain claims the Odyssey group found it. Odyssey isn’t saying and there is no way to independently evaluate the claims because Odyssey won’t reveal the location to the Spanish government. Because it is all about treasure hunting, not archaeology.

  10. FCD… Your ignorance is showing. Odyssey has given Spain the exact location of the Black Swan site. You really should do your homework before you write a critique. I also suggest that you read the following Sussex Project report. You might learn something about Odyssey and their work.

  11. Or you could actually read what I write. Case in point, that is a different ship. I specifically mentioned the Nuestra Senora de la Mercedes in my last comment not the Black Swan – your link goes to a paper that talks about an agreement between Odyssey and the British government – not the Spanish government – so apparently you didn’t read that either. Talk about doing ones homework…

  12. The “Black Swan” is the code name that Odyssey gave to the project that Spain thinks is the Mercedes. In other words, we’re talking about the same ship. I see you don’t even know that. You better keep your day job. Sad!

  13. And it goes with out saying that Odyssey was legally forced to reveal the location – they did not volunteer the information.

  14. Don’t feel too bad for them, Jeff. It must be tough going through life convinced they have all the answers but are repeatedly shown to be wrong about virtually everything they say or post. It’s kind of like being insane, I think.
    These guys can’t acknowledge or rationally discuss Odyssey’s archaeology and conservation practices because to do so would mean it would undermine their rock-solid belief that Odyssey is nothing more than greedy treasure hunters. It would upset their entire world view!
    This is precisely why the Archaeology magazine article had to come out guns a-blaring! Problem for them is there’s a hell of lot more people watching Discovery than reading their rag and I think that honestly makes them crazy.
    It’s really kind of a shame because this would make for a fascinating debate, but instead it’s reduced to their failure to even consider that Odyssey takes science and history seriously. Oh well, the people will be the ultimate judges, not the pointy headed “intellectuals” who can only talk amongst and relate to themselves.

  15. Hey, all I am saying is that if you are going to engage in pothunting be honest about it, don’t hide behind the pointy heded intellectuals you despise. If Odyssey wants to engage in archaeology there is plenty of ships to go around, so far all they have done is loot and plunder. They have not displayed any interest in archaeology beyond using it as a crutch to jack up the selling price.

  16. If competition bears no fruit, cooperate; and put not your trust in laws that smack of ideological purity.

  17. Seems like Treasure Man, no matter the merits of any argument, doesn’t read much anyway. Perhaps he’s only a devotee of the TV. Maybe even on the board of the Discovery Institute. Whatever the case, he is certainly not aquainted with your blog. He’s probably on the board of Odyssey and spends the rest of his time playing with the Wikipedia pages about the company and their looting.

  18. Wowser, reading your blogs has made me smile so much today..what a bunch of uptight “tards” you are…carry on the comedy….

    don’t cry
    well maybe a little tear could add some spice, who needs fly on the wall doc’s now!!

  19. It always amuses me when people put so much time and effort into comments that make no sense what so ever. At least Treasure Man and and Jeff could string two sentences together and have them make sense (even if I disagree with them). Stu is a case in point…

  20. I have to agree with Joseph on this one and come down in the middle.
    On the one hand, to be fair to Odyssey, they are going after some wrecks that are very difficult to document in a traditional marine archaeological sense. From what I’ve seen, they do appear to make an effort to document their finds, establish provenance, take photos, etc., all of which are quite difficult to accomplish beyond a couple hundred feet.
    On the other hand, I do have very serious concerns with them going after wrecks that are more than a couple hundred years old. This is where their financial goals override their patina of science and becomes a major concern. Like many archaeological and paleontological sites, we are better off leaving them alone, documented and preserved, in the hopes that future technology allows us to better record and reflect upon their historical significance.
    Overall I have to agree that the various educational channels have been embarking on rather distressing commercial ventures. The History Channel and “doomsday” is a perfect example of the tripe that they have been putting on the air. The near constant Titanic has gone far beyond overload. It was a ship, it sank, get the f’ over it!
    Treasureman, there are a number of significant problems with your argument. While they do make attempts to document their work, they don’t publish it in a scientific sense. Instead they produce commercial programs, PBS, this show, etc. that they sell for further profit. This fact does severely limit their claim to be practicing science and does put them rather firmly in the “pot-hunting” camp. They aren’t preserving the material for scientific or historical knowledge or posterity, they are selling it to whomever has the money, so again, the science claim is rather shaky. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really object to their actions, at least when it comes to newer wrecks, I just happen to agree with Afarensis that claiming to be marine archaeologists and not simply treasure hunters is rather questionable.

  21. Looks like treasure man lost interest. Since my last post I’ve watched a few episodes of the show. I have to lean further towards the “pot-hunting” camp. They have some great technology, very talented individuals in their crew, etc., but their methodology as presented in the program is rather sloppy. One of the episodes showed a debate between the team archaeologist and a visiting archaeologist. The team guy was solidly behind a rather flimsy story about the ship, founding in a storm, pitching the cannons over the side, explaining why they were only seeing a few cannons (16 I believe at the time). The other archaeologist pointed out, quite legitimately, that this “story” was based on nothing but his own fanciful notions and that there were a number of other equally plausible stories. The team archaeologist would have none of it, his story was “the” story. I’m sorry, but professionally I would look at as many stories as possible:
    1) Cannons overboard
    2) Smaller ship
    3) Cannons buried in the silt under the existing cannons
    4) Ship capsizes and then drifts with the current for a number of miles losing cannons along the way
    His pushing cannons story has major problems. First, they were, at the time, finding 12 pounders. I’m sorry, but if I were the officer in charge of the ship, those are precisely the cannons I would get rid of first. They aren’t that much lighter than the 42 pounders, they’re easier to move, and they are a hell of a lot less expensive to replace if the ship survives. With her normal armament they could have, more easily, gotten rid of 42 tons of weight by just getting rid of the 12 pounders. Add in the six pounders and we’re likely talking about 50 tons of weight that could have been dumped. Finally the weight of the 42 pounders down on the gun deck would have provided stability.
    I didn’t care for the walking up to the cannon they retrieved and smacking it with a hammer to remove the concretion.
    The program seems to be very much about the gold, the money, and the technology. Not much about the science or the history. As I said earlier, that isn’t that big of a deal when dealing with newer ships, but it becomes much more of a concern when dealing with more rare, priceless historical treasures.

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