Today I got a post from someone who didn’t understand why I was allowing looters to post on Sea Research Society’s group page. (https://www.facebook.com/groups/searesearchsociety/)
But, looters is the wrong term! Looters are people who are breaking the law. I don’t condone such crimes in any way. If I become aware of someone looting (i.e. committing an actual crime), I report them. However, the term looters is too often misapplied to people who are not breaking the law at all, but are merely engaging in lawful acts of salvaging lost and/or abandoned property. If these people were “looting” they wouldn’t be posting about their acts.
Many of these so-called looters have done extensive historical research and are true experts at what they do. To the best of my knowledge, they are making legal discoveries and recoveries. And, I firmly believe they are helping to preserve not only the artifacts, but the history of the ships.
Wrecks are being continually destroyed by all sorts of natural forces such as wave action, currents and storm surge causing bending, breaking and collapse of articulated hull structure; sand abrasion; rust; oxidation; electrolytic action between diverse metals, bacteria; marine organisms such as wood eating “sea worms (teredo navalis); dispersal and burial of artifacts; etc., etc.
Using the tiny Confederate submarine Hunley as an example — just one wreck (done to so-called “correct” archaeological standards with the vessel and associated artifacts properly studied, preserved and displayed) can cost over a hundred million dollars (much of which, even after years of work, has yet to be spent because the tax-dollars are simply not available).
Obviously, the tax-payers can not afford to find and preserve, at a tenth of a billion dollars each, the over one hundred thousand shipwrecks in United States waters, much less the millions of wrecks world wide. And, even if we could afford it and wanted to, there aren’t enough underwater archaeologists working for the government and/or in academia in the U.S. to work the wrecks of just one major port in the U.S., even if that was all they did for the rest of their lifetime.
If the salvage of shipwreck artifacts was banned and the people being incorrectly called “looters” are stopped, I believe it would result in a major archaeological and historical loss to the public.
Although the argument against such recoveries has been cast as banning unqualified people from improperly doing the work, I am convinced there are unqualified and qualified people on both sides and it is really a dispute between socialism (or fascism) and capitalism. The socialists/fascists being those who want academia and the government (or select companies working for the government) to do all of the work.
Many people want to pass laws making all shipwrecks public property and they want to do so without due process (which our Constitution requires in the taking of any private property), without compensating the owners (which in many cases are still existing corporations) and/or their heirs, and without compensating the discoverers, and instead want to ban the legal act of salvage. I totally disagree with that. Instead, I am for the passage and application of laws that require reasonable and appropriate archaeological standards to be met for historically or archaeologically important wrecks, but I don’t agree that all wrecks are either archaeologically or historically important and in any case, I want the work done by private enterprise and not paid for by tax-payers, except in very rare cases.
Here is a link to an article that I wrote some years ago on this same subject. https://hunleyfinder.wordpress.com/article/ethics-in-underwater-archaeology-by-dr-9a3pk7ykcgda-6/
E. Lee Spence, MHD
Pres., Sea Research Society
VP, International Diving Institute
U/W Arch. Editor, Scuba Sport magazine