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Treasure Hunting!

Always shallow, no matter how low treasure hunters can sink.

Don Keith's favorite quote:

"You can say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do. It's all the same to us."
Gloin the Dwarf to Bilbo Baggins,
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein

This website is intended for people fighting treasure hunters allover the world. It is the website I whish I had when I was fighting the treasure hunting legislation passed in Portugal in 1993 and repealed in 1995, fortunately before the government could issue any salvage permits. I hope you enjoy it.

Selected Texts

Situation in Portugal between 1993 and 1995, during the treasure hunting legislation period

Basic Bibliography:

Colapinto, John, "Secrets of the Deep," The New Yorker, April 7, 2008.

Throckmorton, Peter. "The World's Worst Investment: The Economics of Treasure Hunting with Real Life Comparisons," in Toni Carrell, ed., Underwater Archaeology Proceedings of the Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting, 1990.

and the books:

Kiesling, Stephen, Walking the Plank: A True Adventure Among Pirates. Ashland, Or.: Nordic Knight Press, 1994.

Watson, Peter, Sotheby's : the inside story. New York: Random House, 1997.

Watson, Peter, and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici conspiracy : the illicit journey of looted antiquities, from Italy's tomb raiders to the world's greatest museums. New York: Public Affairs, 2006.

I would like to propose four ideas:


1. Treasure hunting has nothing to do with archaeology

Archaeologists and treasure hunters cannot work together. Just as astronomers and astrologists cannot work together, or evolutionary biologists and creationists cannot work together.

We do different things, we have different objectives, we use different methods, and we work under different ethical standards.

Treasure Hunting: Frequently Asked Questions


2. More often than not, the "treasure" is in the investor's pockets

Everybody knows the story of the South African citizen that bathed in champaign and washed his socks with beer while "raising money" in Europe to salvage the "treasure of the Grosvenor. And although the information is not easily available, it is frequent to read about investors that lost their money in treasure hunting ventures.

In fact, most treasure hunters live of the money of their investors, sometimes lavishly, sometimes miserably.

As Peter Throckmorton said, treasure hunting is "The World's worse investment".

Check-List for Investors in Treasure Hunting Ventures


3. Treasure hunters destroy the world's cultural heritage forever

If the objective of an underwater excavation is profit, it is impossible to do good archaeology. This is just a matter of logics: investors want a good return on their investments; a for-profit company that would loose time or incur extra costs to excavate carefully a particular site, or to preserve an artifact without market value, would not last long in the market. Common sense dictates that such company would be naturally replaced by a company that would be more efficient at extracting and selling the treasure.

That is why treasure hunters must lie about what they do.

That threasure hunters lie is not always obvious. Treasure hunters are often soft spoken persons, aristocrats with political connections and rich friends, and it is difficult to imagine what they actually do. But let us not fool ourselves.

As J. Richard Steffy has put it, ships carried merchandises and ideas. If carefully studied ship hull remains can yield precious clues to our understanding of shipbuilding techniques of societies that no longer exist. That is what we do in the SHIPLAB.

Shipwrecks are precious archaeological resources. They are a fragile, non-renewable resource, under the constant threat of treasure hunters.

Ships were among the most complex machines built by men through time, and their archaeological remains constitute an important part of the world's cultural heritage. Shipwrecks should belong to all of us and deserve to be protected from destruction by short-term profiteers such as treasure hunters.

However, too many ships have been destroyed by salvage companies looking for valuable artifacts, fuelled by an avid antiquities market that does not ask questions about the provenience of artifacts.

Fake expectations:

...lousy results:


Auction catalogs are often the only information remaining after a ship has been torn apart by treasure hunters in search for artifacts with market value.

Keep in mind: most shipwrecks destroyed by treasure hunters never yield enough artifacts to justify even a catalog. After being destroyed they are simply forgotten.

Why not sell a few artifacts?

George F. Bass' "The Man who Stole the Stars"


4. Hiring archaeologists is just a marketing strategy

Shame and political pressure are changing the way treasure hunters operate. Traditionally assuming their activity as purely profit seeking, treasure hunting companies are now trying to separate themselves from their land counterparts - pot hunters and grave robbers - and advertise themselves under euphemistic designations such as "commercial archaeologists".

Without changing the way they operate, they are changing their image, stating their mission differently, hiring public relations specialists and archaeologists that do not mind lending their names to such ventures.  

Working for treasure hunters is against most professional ethical codes.

But that is not all. Archaeologists working for treasure hunters cannot publicly assume their participation in the destructions they witness and must involve themselves in webs of lies, half-truths, and intentionally complicated situations, in which nobody ever understands who is in charge or when, in order to dilute their responsibility and move on, doing waht they do: renting their names to make possible the destruction of the Humanity's underwater cultural heritage.



Advisory Council for Underwater Archaeology

International Convention for the Preservation of the Underwater Cultural Heritage

ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums



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Last Updated: 10/14/08