Is Treasure Hunting Immoral?

On June 8, 2007 author Robert Kurson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, arguing the merits of treasure hunting. It was the latest salvo in a war that stretches back for decades. Was Kurson right? Or are his critics correct that treasure hunting is immoral and that it, along with the black market antiquities trade, should be criminalized?

The Chaos Book Club

Today marks Day 4 of the Chaos book club. Chaos is an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

Treasure Hunting versus Archaeology

Now, Robert Kurson is a legendary figure in the shipwreck world. He spent seven years of his life researching and excavating the mysterious U-869, a Nazi U-boat which sank about sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey. In a 2007 op-ed for the New York Times, he gave a decent overview of both sides of the debate in question. First, the archaeological side…

“[Archaeologists] claim that because the professional treasure hunter’s first priority is to sell what he finds, artifacts will be rushed from shipwreck to market without being carefully preserved or photographed and cataloged to record their historic value. They charge that even if the treasure hunter cared to preserve and catalog his discoveries, he couldn’t, because he is not properly trained to do such subtle and delicate work.” ~ Robert Kurson

And then the treasure hunter side…

“The treasure hunter’s livelihood depends on keeping his discoveries in pristine condition. He knows that coins and gold and pottery must be handled with exquisite care in order to bring the highest possible price. He must use a surgeon’s touch with every artifact, because even that last lonely vase has value if it is deftly handled. The roughest and toughest of these treasure hunters have some of the gentlest hands in the world.” ~ Robert Kurson

Is Treasure Hunting Immoral?

The Archaeology vs. Treasure Hunting debate is a bitter one. A cursory search on the internet reveals scores of articles (mostly written by archaeologists) on the topic. A particularly stinging attack on treasure hunters is offered by Texas A&M’s Ship Reconstruction Laboratory. Here’s a sample…

“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.”

The above argument seems powerful at first. But upon closer inspection, it’s shown to be fatally flawed. I don’t doubt that “careful excavations” are more expensive than treasure hunts. But this doesn’t necessarily imply they produce better work. In general, non-profit operations pay far less attention to the cost side of the equation than profit-seeking ones. So, this might really be nothing more than better cost management on the treasure hunting side.

Another popular argument levied by archaeologists is that they are working for the public good. They believe that artifacts should be analyzed for historical purposes and stored in museums rather than sold off to wealthy collectors. While it sounds noble, this is hardly the case in real life. For example, a 2001 BBC article discusses a strange situation at the Crimean Eastern Institute:

“The cramped offices of the Crimea’s Eastern Institute are crammed with the archaeologists’ legal finds – each item painstakingly cleaned and catalogued. Bizarrely, the precious gold and silver belt buckles and jewellery are stored in cigarette packets or old medicine boxes. There is no money here for anything else, even though the antiquities themselves are worth tens of thousands of dollars.” ~ Battle to Save Crimea’s Treasures – BBC News

These artifacts aren’t being researched nor are they being put on public display. And this isn’t unique to Crimea. Similar scenarios take place across the globe.

Still, the archaeological position remains consistent. Treasure hunting is an immoral activity and should be treated as such. Thus, archaeologists have sought the assistance of governments in order to quell the activities of hunters.

Privatizing Archaeology?

Is there a way to solve this endless debate? One particularly innovative suggestion comes courtesy of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. In his article, “In Defense of Tomb Robbing,” Adam Young suggests that one solution is to, in essence, “privatize archaeology.” He argues that this would force today’s treasure hunters to acquire greater excavation skills in order to sell artifacts to “museums, universities, and private collectors.” In other words, if “archaeological entrepreneurs” were able to sell their wares freely, they would have greater incentive to do better work in order to fulfill the demands of their customers (i.e. museums). Also, in the absence of antiquities laws, private owners would be more likely to share their artifacts with researchers, especially since subsequent research might increase the value of the artifact in question.

Young further points out that governmental action may be having the opposite of its intended effect. By criminalizing ownership of certain artifacts and employing police to chase down treasure hunters, governments “have attracted exactly those individuals who are the most reckless and unskilled and who concentrate on those artifacts that are the most valuable — to the detriment of historical and scientific research.”

Interestingly enough, his points can be seen today. Shipwreck hunting is, in most cases, legal. This has given rise to companies like Odyssey Marine Exploration, a for-profit corporation that salvages deep sea wrecks. Unlike black market treasure hunters, Odyssey is a highly professional organization. It employs distinguished archaeologists, performs meticulous studies, and even publishes books and reports on its findings.

Some archaeologists say this is not enough. They point to Filipe Castro, who excavated a merchant ship off the coast of Portugal. Castro has “published two scientific books and 26 articles on the wreck, and has completed six archaeological reports.” Perhaps they are right (or perhaps Castro is guilty of severe over-analysis). But regardless, Odyssey has clearly found value in conducting its own scientific research.

Treasure Hunting, Archaeology, & Chaos

The Treasure Hunting vs. Archaeology debate is one I doubt will ever end. Although Odyssey does more scholarly work than any treasure hunting company in history, they are still scorned by the vast majority of archaeologists. Personally, I find the debate fascinating and it served as inspiration for the creation of my hero, Cy Reed.

“I looked at Diane. The rows of seats were like a gulf between us, a gulf that grew with every word she said to the audience. She stood on the respectable side of exploration, shoulder-to-shoulder with archaeologists, scientists and other academics. I used to stand with her. But these days, I increasingly found myself on the other side, in solidarity with the treasure hunters, the smugglers, and the black market dealers.” ~ David Meyer, Chaos

Chaos by David Meyer

Cy Reed is a former urban archaeologist who used to work in Manhattan. Due to a terrible tragedy, he decided to uproot his life and becomes a nomad, working as a treasure hunter. At the beginning of the book, he returns to Manhattan in order to search for a missing friend. He is forced to attempt to reconcile the two sides of his soul: the archaeologist and the treasure hunter. Needless to say, this inner conflict drives much of his actions.

That’s it for today. Make sure you come back tomorrow when we’ll delve into a piece of strange history…namely, a highly controversial Allied World War II project known as Operation Paperclip. I hope to see you then!


Chaos Book Club

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