Treasure Hunting - Frequently Asked Questions

By Filipe Castro


1. Can treasure hunters do archaeology with high standards?

No.  The aim of treasure hunting is profit and treasure hunting companies depend on investor's money.  In a normal competitive environment investors prefer companies that yield better returns on their investments.  It is an indisputable fact that careful excavations are more expensive than the quick salvage of artifacts with market value, and companies that try to follow good archaeological standards will not survive long in any informed market.

2. Can archaeologists and treasure hunters work together?

No.  Like any other professionals, archaeologists are bound by a deontological code.  No deontological code accepts archaeologists selling artifacts to pay for the excavations.  And no deontological code allows archaeologists to lower their standards of practice so that their bosses can make a better profit.

3. Can archaeology be conducted by private organizations?

Yes.  The Institute of Nautical Archaeology is a good example.  Entirely private, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology has pioneered the field of underwater archaeology for over three decades without ever selling one artifact.

4. Why should archaeological collections be kept together?

For several important reasons: 

Because artifacts are normally part of assemblages and alone are frequently meaningless;

Because artifacts are always different from many points of view;

Because the study of assemblages of artifacts is always evolving;

Because as technology evolves artifacts can yield more information if tested with new techniques;

And because there is no need to sell them. 

5. Should less developed countries allow treasure hunting ventures in their waters when they cannot afford a high standard of archaeology?

This is one of the most preposterous arguments of many treasure hunting companies and representatives.  This argument implies that poorer nations should not aim for development, education, or environmental protection (and their cultural heritage is directly related to these aspects).

6. Are shipwrecks a scarce resource?

Yes.  A very scarce one.  Only a certain number of ships were lost in each period, by each culture.  To destroy them all now is to destroy the hope that future generations may look at their cultural heritage with their own eyes.

7. Given the fact that sometimes, if not protected, shipwrecks can be looted by sport divers, destroyed by fishing trawlers, or just decay with time, should it not be advisable to allow treasure hunters to salvage them?

No. To allow the salvage of shipwrecks is to add an additional factor of destruction to those above mentioned.  It is a fallacy to pretend that treasure hunters would only aim at shipwrecks in danger of being destroyed by nature, fishing trawlers, or sport divers.

8. Are treasure hunters a real threat to underwater cultural heritage?

Yes.  Many shipwrecks have been systematically destroyed by treasure hunters searching for valuables.  We know far more about the Roman and Viking vessels than we know about Iberian vessels, so violent has been the destruction of these ships by treasure hunters.

9. Is treasure hunting really profitable as an investment?

No.  There are two types of treasure hunters.  There is a small, silent minority who really finds and rescues precious cargoes, and that goes largely unnoticed by the general public.  The large, noisy majority who advertises its activity in the press, on the internet, and through PR agencies in search of ignorant investors rarely rewards its investors.  P. T. Barnum once said that "a sucker is born every minute," and sadly many treasure hunting companies have ravaged the finances of many ill-informed investors who found it exciting to go search for sunken treasures in exotic seas.

10. Is there a future for treasure hunting?

No.  More and more countries are forbidding this activity in their national waters.  Also, most museums have adopted a ban on the purchase of items salvaged from shipwrecks.

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