The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage is designed to help protect shipwrecks and other underwater sites from looting. The wording of the convention is largely disposed towards maintaining such heritage in situ at best or at least using the means available to preserve the disturbed and removed artifacts, usually in a museum.
At times however, competing interests don’t allow for any sort of preservation. Salvage rights, the freedom of international waters, and varying degrees of legal freedom between countries can blur the lines between what is right, what is valuable, and what is reasonable. Take the ‘Black Swan’ project by Odyssey Marine Exploration. While it remains unclear which wreck (or if multiple wrecks) boasted the uncovered treasure, Spain is pursuing litigation against the company for infringement of their rights and the destruction of underwater war graves. While OME contends that there were no human remains at the coin’s site, it remains unclear how thorough the site inspection was if they have no idea which sunken ship they were actually exploring. Peru’s potential claim on the coins also confuses the issue further. If the treasure was taken forcibly from teh New World, who really has claim to it now, both for history or wealth, and who should?
There are inevitable moral questions tied up with death. Is it moral to perform an autopsy on someone who was the victim of a violent death, in hopes of catching a criminal, even when such a visceral activity disturbs the faith and belief of living relatives? Is it moral to uncover the grave sites of those who can no longer speak for themselves in the hopes of discovering some profound truth about our past? Is it moral to support the claims of rightful bounty by invading conquerors, despite the elapse of hundreds of years?
Ultimately, Odyssey Marine Exploration is a for-profit company aimed at turning a profit with the best possible salvage available. They do care about the provenance of the artifacts they uncover, but largely as a piece of the final worth of those objects. However, it is doubtful to my mind that they can afford to be as meticulous as a non-profit or public company working archaeologically in the same area would be. At the same time, I don’t think that the Spanish claim to the uncovered artifacts is necessarily any better at this point. Since the coins have already been removed and cannot be displayed the option of preservation in situ is gone. Spain can only hope to preserve the coins, possibly displaying a choice few out of thousands at museums. And despite Indiana Jones’ archaeological plea, artifacts (especially those from grave sites) do not belong in museums. They belong where they were originally placed for spiritual significance, or if the result of accident or violence, belong with their descendants.