What's the difference between archaeology and grave robbing?

Undersea Archaeology

An archaeologist's main goal is to help piece together the past.
An archaeologist's main goal is to help piece together the past.
David Silverman/Getty Images

Relatives of the victims of the Titanic have complained that the mining of valuables and relics from the sea floor amount to nothing more than grave robbing. After all, the resting place of the Titanic is also a mass grave of sorts, the sea a home to more than 1,500 casualties. Yet we've seen thousands of personal items on display at numerous Titanic exhibitions since it was discovered in 1987. Undersea explorers claim that these items are displayed as a historical collection of antiquities, just like the contents of King Tut's tomb. The UNSECO Convention of 1970 helped to protect cultural property by outlining guidelines that prevent the plundering of archaeological sites. Those who abide by the convention are not considered grave robbers, but archaeologists trying to piece together the puzzle of human history.

In 2001, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted and ratified by 23 countries, which doesn't include the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, China and Russia. This convention allows the recovery of artifacts as long as the people involved in the recovery make a "significant contribution" to the protection and knowledge of underwater heritage sites. It also prohibits the trading, buying and selling of underwater cultural property. But a convention is only as strong as the countries that acknowledge it, and with major countries like the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, China and Russia steering clear, it remains a convention in limbo.

This state of limbo has allowed major undersea exploration outfits like Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME) to find and recover hundreds millions of dollars of booty from shipwrecks on the sea floor. The COO of OME, Dr. Mark Gordon, believes that these sites are too far down and too hard to find for teams funded by universities and museums. His rationale is that by operating a for-profit endeavor, his team can recover many more items than would ever be possible with a not-for-profit model. He maintains that the money OME makes selling items helps fund the operation, and that individual unique pieces are not sold, but kept for research purposes. His critics charge that the operation is nothing more than a well-funded and sophisticated looting business, staffed by educated grave robbers.

As the undersea debate continues to rage, it's hard to tell what lies ahead for companies like Odyssey Marine Exploration. As more countries ratify and observe the 2001 UNESCO Convention, the difference between land and sea excavation, and archaeology and grave robbing may become more clearly defined.

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