Digital Library

Selected Texts

“The Trouble with Treasure – A Preservationist View of the Controversy,” by William A. Cockrell, in American Antiquity vol.45, no.2 (1980):333-339.

In recent months, we have seen treasure hunting glorified in Saturday Review, Newsweek, Playboy, National Geographic, on NBC, CBS, and ABC television as well as on public television. There is no denying that the search for sunken treasure has long been romanticized in the United States. Widely circulated stories of easy riches have met with receptive audiences, yet no major media vehicle has presented the attendant story of the massive irreversible destruction of these irreplaceable elements of the past.

Sadly, I find many archaeologists do not view historic shipwrecks as deserving the same degree of protection as land sites. This position arises from an ignorance of the sophisticated exploration, recovery, and interpretation presently being done by those such as George Bass and his associates at the Institute of nautical archaeology or that done by Carl Clausen and Barto Arnold under the auspices of the Texas Antiquities Committee. Although I have been Florida’s State Underwater Archaeologist since 1972, I continue to find myself more fascinated by my Early Man research than by contemplation of the remains of these historic wrecks. But in the face of the shocking destruction wrought on these time capsules in recent years, the recent loss of protective federal legislation, and the potential imminent loss of all state protective legislation, I feel that my personal and professional ethics force me to speak out and compel me to demand that my colleagues do the same.

In 1975, a redefinition of Florida’s territorial waters in the Florida Keys placed an entire hitherto protected fleet (lost in 1733).outside Florida’s jurisdiction. At this time unbridled depredations began: today [5 years later] none of those wrecks formerly protected by Florida law have escaped massive looting or total destruction. Furthermore, wrecks in adjacent state waters are openly looted. When apprehended, even while diving on state-owned wrecks (I must point out that there are no state laws prohibiting diving on wreck sites; the prohibitions are against disturbing or looting the sites) and in possession of dripping-wet, coral-encrusted artifacts, looters simply claim to have made the recoveries earlier in nearby federal waters. Accordingly, the devastation is nearly complete in state waters adjacent to federal waters that contain accessible wrecks.

Whether or not we knew better in the past,

We know today that we are committing wrongs: destroying archaeological sites, archaeological data, and artifacts. The archaeological profession may no longer in good conscience allow the destruction to continue unremarked. In an era of concern for the destruction of nonregenerative natural resources, it seems especially criminal to destroy the last vestiges of a significant period of Western history for the fun and profit of a few, at the expense of the irrevocable loss of knowledge for all subsequent generations.

Johnston, Paul Forsythe, “Treasure salvage, archaeological ethics and maritime museums”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (1993) 22.1: 53-60.

In this article, “Treasure salvage, archaeological ethics and maritime museums”, Paul Johnston “discusses maritime museum and museum association positions on treasure hunting, and explores some of the issues and possible solutions to what has become one of the most significant and controversial problems in the profession.”

He discusses the positions of two of the world’s most prominent museum organizations, the Council of American Maritime Museums, and the International Congress of Maritime Museums. He examines their mission statements, applauds the efforts currently being made, and criticizes their shortcomings.

SUB-ARCH Discussion List, 6 March 2003.

Treasure Hunting vs. Archaeology Debate.

“If either the good-ole-days, the status-quo, or the possible-future are better or worse are subjective judgments by individuals or collections of individuals. We can only state cases and present ideologies to look for philosophies that best fit the physical condition. If they are better or worse is precisely the question we must decide through debate.

The differing motivations (that archaeologists seek to preserve and treasure hunters seek to capitalize) polarize the perception of cultural resources into two camps. Through my case in this philosophical debate, I wish to impart the collective ethical motivation that underlies the archaeological stance for preservation. The relevance of the bible-thumping analogy is lost on me, I don’t see any contention being won or lost there.

With terms defined and seemingly accepted by tacit or active approval, perhaps we should more clearly draw the lines of pro and con so the point of the debate remains clear.

As I opened the debate, mine is the affirmative argument (pro), which favors the archaeological perspective of preservation of cultural resources as a collective resource for the benefit and enlightenment of all humanity. The growth of scientific archaeological practice has been accompanied by the development of philosophies, ethics and ideologies which naturally temper the application of science and technology in understanding and relating any resource. I contend that these principles, which have originated from a basic entropic level and continue to develop in response to dynamic factors of culture and environment, contradict and countermand the original practice, which is the commercial activity known as treasure hunting. As defined, treasure hunting is the business of recovering lost objects that are precious by virtue and made exclusive by historical association for the purposes of profitable liquidation on the open market to interested private parties.

I expect the logical contrary argument against archaeology, academia and their ethics to be in favor of free enterprise, dissolution of movements to set standards and regulations concerning cultural resources, and the ability to capitalize and freely exploit those resources. But, it is not for me to take that side or influence the construction of the argument. In fact, I am not seeing anyone on the list come out and logically defend treasure hunting with evidence or a structured case that depicts the merits of the practice over the principles of archaeology. Surprisingly, I’ve seen acceptance of the fundamental ethical principle of archaeology (that cultural heritage is a collective resource to preserve) as a given. Perhaps it is not understood that such acceptance is a huge concession that essentially undermines the whole business principal behind treasure hunting: private ownership of cultural material.

Rob, what perplexes me most is your statement: “And none of us TH’ers wants–maybe, OK, I should say ‘expects’–to own and sell all artifacts.”

Treasure hunting is not a viable enterprise unless private parties buy, sell and own artifacts. The qualifier of ‘all’ has been stipulated by law, laws which were passed through the efforts of archaeologists and those that appreciate their principles. It is my interpretation of the sentiments of treasure hunters on and off this list that those legal stipulations are almost universally resented and considered inhibitive to free enterprise, hence there is an embittered perception of archaeology and archaeologists as a whole because they wish to impose limits to preserve resources.

If this is not the case, there is no grounds for debate. It means essentially that treasure hunters acknowledge the validity of archaeological standards. Of course, this is not the case, but if it was, logically, the only basis remaining for the rift would be that treasure hunters feel they are already qualified as archaeologists through experience without having to go through formal education. In essence the syllogism is, if you aren’t selling artifacts you’ve recovered, you aren’t a treasure hunter, but if you are digging up a site without qualifications and appropriate authority, you aren’t an archaeologist… you’re effectively a criminal against society destroying a cultural resource. On further consideration, this syllogism may actually have validity in regards to the perspective that sees wreck diving as a “sport” — if one were to think of sport in terms of big game hunting and not defined as athletic activity and competition.

I hope never to wander into incivility in making these arguments, as it would cloud my purpose. In the past, I have been frustrated (and voiced that frustration poorly) by seeing this useful resource get crowded with non-constructive and belligerent tirades. I am now employing a tact of structured logical and philosophical debate by which I hope to engage those who berate archaeologists in their own forum and give them an opportunity to make their case. I am secure in my beliefs, but open minded to other views when stated convincingly. There is no straw here.

David Johnson”

Statutes of the International Council of Museums

Code of Professional Ethics. 1987.

A museum should not


Acquire by purchase objects in any case where the governing body or responsible officer has reasonable cause to believe that their recovery involved the recent unscientific or international destruction or damage of ancient monuments or archaeological sites.

Each museum should develop policies that allow it to conduct its activities within appropriate national and international laws and treaty obligations, and with a reasonable certainty that its approach is consistent with the spirit and intent of both national and international efforts to protect and enhance the cultural heritage.


All planning for field studies and field collecting must be preceded by investigation, disclosure, and consultation with both the proper authorities and any interested museums or academic institutions in the country or area of the proposed study sufficient to ascertain if the proposed activity is both legal and justifiable on academic and scientific grounds. Any field programme must be executed in such a way that all participants act legally and responsibly in acquiring specimens and data, and that they discourage by all practical means unethical, illegal, and destructive practices.

Bylaws of the Council of American Maritime Museums

As amended and approved September 26, 1978, April 25, 1987, May 21, 1988, April 28, 1989, and April 20, 1990.

“CAMM member institutions shall adhere to archaeological standards consistent with AAM/ICOM.”

“CAMM member institutions shall not knowingly acquire or exhibit artifacts which have been stolen, illegally exported from their country of origin, illegally salvaged or removed from commercially exploited archaeological or historical sites.”

Underwater Archaeology: The Proceedings of the 14th Conference on Underwater Archaeology, edited by Calvin R. Cummings, San Marino, CA: Fathom Eight Special Publication 7, 1986.

Calvin R. Cummings states that throughout history, “(…) nothing clouds intellectual reason more than the “flash of gold” (greed). Eyes glaze over, minds become fogged, and reason evaporates. In chasing the “lure of gold” individuals and groups invent amazing rationales to explain their departure from societal order.” He then goes on to quote various by-laws enacted by each of the major professional archaeological societies in the United States to protect cultural resources from the “lust for treasure”:

Society for American Archaeology:

“To advocate and to aid in the conservation of archaeological data; to discourage commercialism in the archaeological field and to work for its elimination.”

“The practice of collecting, hoarding, exchanging, buying, or selling archaeological materials for the sole purpose of personal satisfaction or financial gain are declared contrary to the ideals and objects of the Society.”

Society of Professional Archaeologists:

“A professional archaeologist has the responsibility to:

“Conserve the total cultural resource base.”

“Discourage, and if possible prevent, destruction of archaeological sites, or portions of sites for the purpose of acquiring materials for other than scientific purposes.”

“An archaeologist shall:

“Actively support conservation of the archaeological resource base;.”

“Avoid and discourage exaggerated, misleading, or unwarranted statements about archaeological matters that might induce others to engage in unethical or illegal activity;.”

“Support and comply with the terms of UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property,.”

Society for Historical Archaeology

“The collecting, hoarding, exchanging, buying, or selling of archaeological artifacts and research data for the purpose of personal satisfaction of financial gain, of the indiscriminate excavation of archaeological sites, including underwater wrecks, are declared contrary to the purposes of The Society. To support this position, The Society shall initiate or endorse efforts to discourage unnecessary destruction of archaeological resources by public and private institutions, agencies, and corporations. Further, The Society encourages its members not to condone the use of their name or research findings by others engaged in illegal or unethical activities, and to report knowledge of such activities to appropriate authorities and professional societies.”

(Ethical Position Statement)

National Association of State Archaeologists

“To facilitate communication among State Archaeologists and thereby to contribute to the conservation of cultural resources and to the solution of problems in the profession. Consensus views of NASA will be communicated to governmental agencies and organizations concerned with management of cultural resources.”

(Purpose Statement)

Association for Field Archaeology

“To serve as an instrument for the discussion of and action concerning the recovery, restoration, and primary interpretation of excavation material, and the protection of antiquities, including opposition to the dealing and the illicit traffic in such materials.”

(Purpose Statement)

Society for California Archaeology

“The gathering of archaeological specimens of the destruction of archaeological sites for the purposes of selling artifacts or finding souvenirs shall in all instances be forbidden.”

(Code of Scientific Ethics)

Archaeological Institute of America

“The Archaeological Institute of America condemns the destruction of the material and historical records of the past by the plundering of archaeological sites both in the United States and abroad and by the illicit export and import of antiquities.”

“The Archaeological Institute of America applauds the efforts of local authorities, both in the United States and abroad, to prevent the despoliation of archaeological sites and the illicit export and import of antiquities and archaeological materials, and pledges its support to such efforts.”


American Society for Conservation Archaeology

“.the practice of collecting, hoarding, exchanging, buying, or selling archaeological materials for the purpose of personal satisfaction of financial gain are declared contrary to the ideals and purpose of the society.”

The statement submitted by The American Association of Museums to the Subcommittee on Oceanography of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries of the U.S. House of Representatives, on H.R. 74, The Abandoned Shipwreck Act.

Submitted April 21, 1987.

The AAM supported the passage of HR 74, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act.

Through several acts of Congress in recent years, the nations public policy has strongly embraced the need for a federal presence in the protection of natural, historical, and archaeological resources. Further, the federal government has taken an essential role in assisting museums and other cultural institutions to undertake the critical task of preserving artifacts of artistic and historical significance. However, one valuable resource of both archaeological and historical import that does not receive such treatment and is in need of protection from potential destruction and exploitation are historic abandoned shipwrecks.

The Abandoned Shipwreck Act provides the necessary protection of abandoned shipwrecks in state waters. This bill would remove shipwrecks of historic importance found on submerged lands from the jurisdiction of federal admiralty law. Unlike archaeological sites on land, the ability of states to manage sites on their submerged law is not explicitly stated in U.S. law. Hence, in absence of federal recognition of the special nature of historic shipwrecks, these wrecks are subject to admiralty law whereby a “finders-keepers” theory awards wrecks to commercial salvors or others establishing a claim to them for the purpose of personal gain. This “finders-keepers” system directly contradicts laws protecting archaeological sites on land that prohibit salvage, looting, and commercial exploitation.

Admiralty law was developed for a worthwhile and necessary purpose, a need that it continues to effectively serve in many situations. However, changing attitudes toward cultural preservation of all kinds, combined with the rapid development of underwater technology, have demonstrated that exceptions to admiralty law are necessary.

Historic shipwrecks attract archaeologists, sports divers, and treasure salvors for a variety of reasons – exploration, scientific inquiry, and recreation. Yet, if commercial mining of these wrecks remains unchecked and they continue to fall prey to any and all who may assert claim to them, few historic underwater sites will be left for current and future generations of scholars, underwater enthusiasts, and the general public.

The United States may be the only nation with a substantial number of historic shipwrecks that has not enacted legislation recognizing the importance of protecting these resources. As a world leader in the development of human achievement and the preservation of its heritage, the United States must establish a responsible federal policy on historic abandoned shipwrecks that provides for the orderly and archaeologically sound excavation of sites when salvage takes place.