Finders, Keepers?

Is there any difference between professional deep-sea treasure hunters and raggedy-ass grave-robbing pot-hunters?

The recent discovery of a booty-laden British warship buried 330 feet below the English Channel begs the question. In 1744, the HMS Victory, bearing 100 brass canons, and a crew of 1150, sank in a violent storm. Its fate has been one of the biggest mysteries in naval history.

The rotting hulk was found by Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Florida-based outfit. The British government has given the recovery operation its blessing.  At a press conference last week, Odyssey’s chief executive crowed:

“It is probably the most significant shipwreck find to date. HMS Victory was the mightiest vessel of the 18th century and the eclectic mix of guns we found on the site will prove essential in further refining our understanding of naval weaponry used during the era.”

Sean Kingsley, a marine archaeologist who consults for the company, calls the HMS Victory “the naval equivalent of the Titanic, perhaps even more important than the Titanic. It’s the only intact collection of bronze guns from a Royal Navy warship in the world.” Kingsley told the LA Times that the ship “was the equivalent in its day of an aircraft carrier armed with nuclear weapons…When it disappeared off the face of the earth, there was a collective gasp in the establishment and the general public.”

So why are some scientists and historians outraged by the find? Says one British archaeologist:

“If Odyssey is allowed to go ahead with this operation, it will cause uproar.  There are very hard questions to be answered about whether these sites should be recovered, and in particular whether the British government should be sanctioning that recovery.”

But why leave the ship frozen in time? Is it an ethical or scientific issue? True, the Florida salvage company is motivated by profit, and is expected to reap millions from the gold and silver coins recovered. But how else are these archaeological time capsules going to be discovered? Are any present-day governments sponsoring the search for their maritime heritage in the deep seas?

We go to the moon and mars to learn about the cosmos, why can’t we troll the earth’s oceans to unravel mysteries of the past?

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