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Finding Treasure and Losing History

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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. 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.

The first episode opens with a scene at “Black Swan,” where the Odyssey crew gleefully scoops up gold and silver coins using a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Odyssey claims that “Black Swan” is not a shipwreck, it is a debris field–a site where treasure may have been thrown overboard perhaps from a ship that was in danger of sinking and needed to quickly off-load a large amount of weight. If this claim is true, then the treasure could be considered abandoned property. Because the treasure was found international waters, it would belong solely to Odyssey. The Spanish government isn’t buying this story. They believe that Odyssey has found the wreck of Nuestra Senora de la Mercedes , a ship that sunk in 1804 carrying a large amount of coins. They are demanding to know the site’s location and to be able to inspect the artifacts that Odyssey has recovered. If the coins came from Mercedes then the treasure is Spanish property and Odyssey might not get any of the treasure. On the other hand, the judge in the case could give Odyssey a salvage award that could be more than 90 percent of the treasure as compensation for its recovery. Treasure Quest reveals very little about the site (Odyssey considers even basic information about the site proprietary). The legal battle is only briefly mentioned during the first episode, but the scene at “Black Swan” does show that the program’s producers are more interested in the search for gold than history.

The narrator breathlessly repeats that the coins are valued at $500 million, a number that a coin marketer working with Odyssey came up with shortly after the find was announced. The narrator doesn’t mention that months later, the paper work that Odyssey filled out so they could move the coins from Gibraltar to Florida became public knowledge. Odyssey’s export license application for the coins used a figure of only $4 million. No doubt, whatever money Odyssey is making from its deal with the Discovery Channel will help defray legal fees and the costs of looting other historically important shipwrecks such as Merchant Royal , a 17th-century English ship that the show’s narrator claims went down with a billion dollars worth of treasure. The value of the treasure aboard Merchant Royal is disputed by scholars who interpret historical documents about the ship differently than Odyssey’s researchers. However, that controversy never comes up even though the search for Merchant Royal is the focus of the first episode.

Odyssey’s critics don’t appear on the show, so there is no one to refute some of the ridiculous things that are said. “Archaeology ain’t an art anymore, it’s a science,” says Odyssey’s archaeologist Neil Cunningham Dobson, “and I want to take it into the 21st century.” 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.

Likewise, Odyssey’s “21st-century science” isn’t subject to peer review, the process whereby other scientists look for weaknesses and mistakes in a research study before it is published in a scientific journal. For all the noise Odyssey makes about doing scientific research, its investigations, spanning more than 20 years, haven’t produced any scientific journal articles. Much of the information about the sites Odyssey investigates is considered proprietary and is not shared with scholars outside the company. Odyssey’s interpretations are the first, last, and only word on the archaeology of the wrecks they investigate. Because there is no way to know if their interpretations are the most plausible ones or simply the ones that best help them sell coins, win lawsuits, and make TV shows.

Treasure Quest is a slow moving affair. It relies on extensive narration to drive the show instead of letting people’s actions carry the story the way it does on Discovery’s more interesting programs such as Deadliest Catch , which chronicles the lives of crab-fishermen on the Bering Sea. Instead of scenes of hard-working people struggling against the elements to make a living, Treasure Quest has scenes of middle-aged men sitting in comfortable chairs sipping coffee and cracking lame jokes while the ROV pokes around a couple of wreck sites that had been discovered years earlier. Nothing that happens in the episode reveals much about the character of the individuals working for Odyssey. They all get treated like heroes by the shows producers who often use low camera angles to make the Odyssey crew look taller and more impressive.

The only moments of dramatic tension come when Odyssey’s ship is parked in the English Channel examining a wreck they think could be Merchant Royal . As they do this, they are blocking a shipping lane, and an approaching cargo freighter gets close enough to set off their collision alarm. After that, a French Navy jet does a few low flyovers to emphasize the point that they need to move their ship. The flyovers incense Odyssey’s crew. The captain claims, without irony, that what the jet is doing is dangerous and illegal, apparently forgetting that his own actions nearly caused the collision with the freighter.

The technology that Odyssey uses to explore shipwrecks is the most interesting part of the program. But the shows producers seem to confuse using cutting-edge technology with doing cutting-edge science. The gee-whiz gadgetry doesn’t create much information that is useful to the academic archaeological community, and that is a big loss. The artifacts that Odyssey sells might inspire people to wonder about what life was like on-board a ship a few hundred years ago when they played an integral role in the rise and fall of nations, but getting real answers about that history requires wrecks to be scientifically excavated and analyzed. The results have to be shared and debated so that they can become part of the historical and archaeological records. Otherwise the artifacts are just trinkets, conversation pieces, or decorative touches on the coffee tables of those who can afford them. The world’s underwater heritage is a fascinating and nonrenewable resource. It captivates people’s imaginations precisely because it can reveal so much about our history.

For a show that takes viewers deep under the surface of the ocean, Treasure Quest seems content just to skim the surface of what Odyssey does. What could have been an interesting look at the issues surrounding a controversial way of investigating nautical history, is instead an endorsement of destroying the archaeological record for profit.

Zach Zorich is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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