Sea History 088 - Spring 1999

Page 40

SHIP NOTES, SEAPORT & MUSEUM NEWS "Technology and Archeology in the D eep Sea": MIT Gathers the Experts Comroversy has been inherent to the world of underwater archaeology since its inception. The tug-of-war between academics, salvagers, sports divers, gove rnments and insurance companies over access to inrellectually, politically or financi ally importanr shipwrecks and ownership rights has heated up recently as the result of extrao rdinary finds in deep-water locations made possible by new technologies. Public awareness of these issues has been fueled by rhe discovery of the Titanic, rhe incredible ancient shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean, and discoveries yet-to-be- made in rhe anoxic water of rhe Black Sea. The Engineering D epartmem of rhe Massachusetts Ins tirute of Technology and rhe Insrirure for Exploration (IFE) based in M ys tic, Co nn ecticut, recenrly gave the creators and users of these technological innovations, as well as rhe lawye rs who defend rhe rights of different imerests, the opportunity to meet and discuss the tough questions emerging from their disparate abilities, expectations and responsibi lities. The co nference ar MIT over 29-31 January, entitled "Technology and Archeology in the D eep Sea: Toward a New Synrhesis," brought together 60 archaeologists, engineers, oceanographers and lawyers from six coumries. The primary goal of the conference was to lay the fo undations for the newly emerging field of deep-sea archaeology, wirh methods, prob lems and laws rhar are very differenr from land or shallowwarer archaeology. Papers focused on rhe possibilities offered by rhe recenr advances in underwater technology, rhe problems associated with exp loration and research in rhe deep seawhere a lack of oxygen offers rhe potential for superbly preserved artifacts-and rhe legalities associated with rhe ownership of shipwrecks. The presenters were lively and so metimes conrroversial. Dr. Robert Ballard, rhe oceanographer who led rhe expedition rhar found rhe Titanic and USS Yorktown and founder of the IFE, stared rhar deep sea archaeo logy is a "three-legged stool" of archaeologists, engineers and oceanograp hers. Many attendees were surprised to learn rhar there are actually more than 100 Remotely Operated Vehicles (like JASON) capable of d iving to more than 2000 meters, and


by David B. Allen three more come on line each month. The majority of these belong to commercial operations searching for oi l and minerals on the ocean floor. Ballard likened the gathering of data by these robotic instruments to" drinking from a fire hydranr"; so much information can be gathered so quickly that so me of the most valuable archaeological finds are made whi le analyzing the data months later in the laboratory. He proposed the formation of a proactive body to seek out and study the profusion of deep sea data stumbled upon by oil exploration compan ies and others.

Technology Alone is No Solution Dr. George Bass, founder of rhe Institute of Nautical Archaeology and, indeed, a pioneer in archaeology underwater, warned that technology cannot replace good archaeological methods and rhar archaeologists should not be dependent on or in awe of the new deep sea technology. H e believes none of rhe numerous ancienr shipwrecks he discovered wou ld have been found ifhe had relied on ly on new technology, and he reminded the conference that finding a wreck sire and removing objects is not archaeology. Archaeologists, nor engineers, must be sire directors of archaeological digs. Dr. David Mindell, an MIT engineer who helped design rhe JASON, warned engin eers to realize rhar, although technology offers fantastic possibilities for archaeologists, "measuring an artifact is nor all rhar is needed to understand it. " Dr. Anna McCann, an archaeologist from Boston University, staring that "archaeology needs engineering, " said that collaboration is rhe only way to go forward. Some of rhe newest and possibly most archaeo logically valuabl e deep sea engineering tools areAutonomous U nderwarer Vehicles (AUVs)-submersible robots rhar can roam rhe sea floor for monrhs, searching our, mapping and photographing underwater artifacts much more cosr effectively rhan manned expeditions. In addition to transmitting information and images, AUVs could acr as mechanical sentries, so rt of "RoboCops" of the deep, to protect wrecks from thieves and "por hunters. " The new technology can make underwater cultural reso urces much more accessible to studems and the general public,

particularly through rhe Inrerner, creating "virtual museums" ofshipwrecks rharcould be studied and inrerprered in situ. Many of the co nferees agreed rhar rhe new technology enhances rh e possibilities for archaeo logical research but multiplies rhe danger of rhe desrrucrion or looting of submerged cultural resources. James Goold, a lawyer from rhe law firm of Covington & Burling who is active in shipw reck preservation matters, noted that current salvage law mandates rhat the salvager must disclose the coordinates of a w reck to rhe Court and must bring a piece of the wreck to substanriare their claims. Dr. Ballard's team did notwanr to disclose rhe site of the Titanic, and so losr legal rights to rhe wreck when another group, RMS Titanic, later learned the coordinates and brought back an artifact from the ship.

Needed: New Law The archaeo logica l co mmunity seems wholly agreed on rhe critical need for a comprehensive law of the sea to prorecr historically significant wrecks in deep water and to preserve them for study and education. Currenr laws do not give adequate state or federal protection for cultural resources in waters farthe r than 24 miles from shore. Archaeologists were encouraged to learn and use existing laws to prorecr sires and acquire rhe rights to sires for museums and other educational institutions. The United Nations Education , Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is currenrly working on an international agreeme nt rhat, if passed, would offer some protection to wrecks in internation al waters. Suggestions emergi ng from the conference were: to organize a society of engineers, archaeologists and oceanographers ro discuss the problems and possible solutions for deep sea archaeology; disseminate a newsletter about these problems and solutions; publish a statemem from the conference attendees expressing their concerns about deep sea archaeology; and to publish rhe papers presenred ar rhis conference. Toward the end of the conference, Dr. Ballard piqued rhe interest of many attendees wirh news of a project he is helping to plan-a deep sea exploration of the oceans on one of rhe moons of Jupiter! ,t