Monday, May 21, 2007

Three Stories, One Connection

Three apparently unrelated stories have appeared over the last few days. Although apparently unrelated, they add up to a picture of the problems facing our archaeological heritage, and the difficult task government, private organizations, archaeologists and the general public have in safeguarding that resource.

The first story received the most attention. A treasure-hunting company named Odyssey Marine Exploration found a shipwreck with over 17 tons of gold coins and silver. The vessel had been sunk approximately 400 years ago. The identity of the vessel (if known), and its location are being tightly guarded. The laws regarding naval salvage are complex and I don't pretend to know the details, but if the wreck were in international waters, there is pretty much no regulation of treasure hunters. Naturally, the press are interested in this not for any historical value, but because of the size of the treasure. Finding the wreck is treated much as winning the lottery.

The two other stories, however, show the shadowy side of the desire to mine the past for profit. Vicksburg military park was vandalized by treasure hunters, who dug holes looking for artifacts, presumably with the aid of metal detectors. The park rangers note that this is not an uncommon event, and that many people come to the park to look for souvenirs, in the process damaging the park (such as the Texas Monument, harmed by this latest spree) and eliminating our ability to find out more about the battle by charting the distribution of musket balls, for example.

The third story comes from Denmark, where border control police seized some 4000 artifacts which had been smuggled out of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, instability, the lack of a strong central authority, and economic problems combine to make looting both easy and lucrative. Sadly, the people who dig up artifacts for sale on the black market don't even get most of the profit -- instead, middle-men and dealers reap the windfall, laundering artifacts in places like Switzerland. The artifacts will be returned to the National Museum in Kabul. From there, it is not unlikely that they will be stolen again, due to lack of funding for security (or, as under the Taliban, stolen with government complicity). Protecting archaeology in places like Afghanistan is like trying to plug a dyke with a million holes in it. The problem is of such a magnitude that any solution seems hopeless.

Needless to say, the people trying to stop occurences like those reported in the last two stories are not helped by the first, which makes digging for treasure sound like an easy and fun way to get rich. Treasure-hunting companies generally put out PR saying that they take due care with the archaeological context and that their work brings to light things that would otherwise be undiscovered. However, even if that were true, it doesn't change fact that stories like that above make the past sound like something to be exploited for private gain, rather than for the benefit of everyone.

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