Stopping Looting of Classic Greek and Roman Underwater Antiquities Sites
Cultural artifacts that both describe how a group of people lived and demonstrates the art they contrived is precious to the people who consider themselves present members of that culture or, at the very least, are residents of the nation from which the culture originated. Unfortunately, the removal and sale of these artifacts has a long history, and the trade is only recently being regulated and stopped. There are many problems with the methods used to stop the trade however and no one nation or regulatory body has been able to devise a solid means by which these treasures can be returned to the people who claim them as heritage. The heritage argument and the ability to return the artifacts becomes even more clouded when the items in question are found underwater. Although there has been a concerted effort to secure sites in a great many different kinds of sites, those that have been submerged offer and even greater series of issues because the artifacts are many times even harder to trace. This difficulty becomes even more pronounced because the thefts do not always occur knowingly. Professional thieves of artifacts understand the culpability they have in procuring illicit goods, but vacationers who have signed on to dive tours in regions where antiquities can be procured often believe that they are doing nothing wrong when they take an item from a recognized or unrecognized archeologically significant area. Because the problem is so widespread, the thefts have happened over such a great amount of time and since no one set of laws or regulations covers all possible situations, this issue is one that continues. This paper looks specifically at how Greek and Roman antiquities have been pilfered from underwater archeological sites, the methods that have been used to return those items to their rightful historic owners, and draws conclusions based on the evidence regarding how the issue can best be resolved.
Stolen Underwater Artifacts
The theft of artifacts from underwater sites is, in many ways, much easier for professionals than removing them from land sites.[footnoteRef:1] The reason for this can be seen in the cover offered by the water itself. Since greater than 75% of the Earth is covered with water, it is impossible to police all of the areas that need coverage at any one time. Even satellites would not allow people to watch every mile of water on the planet.[footnoteRef:2] Another coverage that water gives besides the fact that its coverage is massive is the fact that depth also gives cover. A diver does not have to descend very far before they are undetectable to infrared sensors or other detection devices. For these reasons and others, the theft of underwater archeologically significant sites has been one of the most rampant and unmanageable means of theft for a long time.[footnoteRef:3] However, the area to be covered becomes less significant when searchers know that they are looking for specific types of artifacts. [1: AFP, "A Rich Greek Archeology Frontier Lying Underwater," Khaleej Times (2005, June 24).] [2: Ibid.] [3: Akal, "Surveillance and Protection of Underwater Archaeological Sites: Sea Guard," (accessed November 2, 2012) http://www.acoustics.org/press/155th/akal.htm]
Greek and Roman artifacts are prevalent among underwater sites because both ancient cultures were prolific sea farers and because the cultures are recent enough that the artifacts are usually relatively easy to recognize.[footnoteRef:4] But, the issue that some people have with these sites is even more pronounced when it comes to these two ancient cultures. The Greeks were often very warlike, very separate in their notions of a unified statehood, and willing themselves to pilfer rare goods from other cultures. The Romans had many of the same issues. So, the problem for modern archeologists trying to return goods to their rightful cultures is where do they actually come from?[footnoteRef:5] In some areas, it is easy to determine where the antiquities come from and thus who they belong to because the people dealing the stolen goods have no compunction to try and hide what they are doing. One such case has occurred regularly in Northern Cyprus where the ethnic Turkish rulers of the region have been trying to systematically decimate ethnic Greek historic sites since they invaded and took over in 1974.[footnoteRef:6] This same bold theft of artifacts happens on the oceans when professional "treasure hunters" engage in the lifting of goods from these underwater sites with the insistence that they should be able to because they are doing so in international waters.[footnoteRef:7] Though this may be true, it does not diminish the fact that these artifacts should at least be somehow codified and displayed so that all people can enjoy them. This has been the thrust of a wave of modern techniques to secure the artifacts for the cultures that claim them as heritage. [4: Susannah Rutherglen, "Repatriating Art: A Museum Director Examines the Controversy over Whether Nations Own Their Cultural Artifacts," American Scholar 77.3 (2008): 149-152.] [5: Robert K. Paterson, "New Principles for Cooperation in the Mutual Protection and Transfer of Cultural Material," Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law 100 (2006): 327-328.] [6: Janet McMahon, "Cypriot Archeological Officer Deplores Theft and Dispersion of Antiquities from Northern Cyprus," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs XIII.6 (1999): 84-86.] [7: Susannah Rutherglen, "Repatriating Art: A Museum Director Examines the Controversy over Whether Nations Own Their Cultural Artifacts," American Scholar 77.3 (2008): 149-152.]
Methods for Return
Most would believe that all a disgruntled nation or individual would have to do is follow the path of litigation and the courts to secure the property that they believe is rightfully theirs. This is the civilized way that people have been recovering property, they believe has been stolen, for centuries and it should logically work in these cases also. Unfortunately, that is often not the case and it is because of the complexity of international relations.[footnoteRef:8] Because many different nations, even though they are allied in most things, have a different idea of where artifacts can best be protected, there is often no court of appeals that can be used to adequately solve disputes. This is especially true because the world court at The Hague is not recognized as having precedence by many nations (including the United States), and because there are real conflicts of ideals that occur between many nations. Due to this difficulty, nations and peoples have had to devise more clever methods to have antiquities returned. [8: Martin Carver, "Editorial," Antiquity 82.315 (2008): 7-9.]
One of the issues often is that a nations is undergoing some sort of conflict and when this happens soldiers often have less regard for any antiquities they come across than for the safety of their own persons. Many ancient artifacts have been destroyed unwittingly by soldiers during bombings and fire fights.[footnoteRef:9] Soldiers from many countries have been taught what to look for so that they do not destroy items that have cultural value to another country[footnoteRef:10], but this has not stopped the destruction. Syria has been war torn for almost two years now, and other countries are trying to devise a system by which they can work with the Syrian government to both stop the senseless loss of human life in the country and help the government preserve the nations rich cultural heritage. This has been called antiquities diplomacy by some[footnoteRef:11], and it has worked to allow governments to discuss matters with the nation. Although there are no threats from the fighting off the coast of the country, there are many flooded sites within the country and national waters in the Mediterranean. The sites within the country need to be looked after, but those in the oceans are also in danger if fighting continues because of the instability of the government. There is no guarantee that a new government would be willing to protect archeological sites within or external to the country, so some nations are using the sites and their products as tools for diplomacy that can stop the fighting and thus help protect the antiquities.[footnoteRef:12] [9: Lane Jennings, "Raiding the Past: What Future for Antiquities? Cultures Clash over Who Has the Right to Own, Display, or Sell Historic Objects," The Futurist 40.3 (2006): 8-10.] [10: Ibid.] [11: Tuncay Aiken, Jonathan. "Antiquities Diplomacy." The American Spectator 42.1(2009): 58-60.] [12: Tuncay Aiken, Jonathan. "Antiquities Diplomacy." The American Spectator 42.1(2009): 58-60.]
Other unique approaches have been attempted by countries because they realize the difficulty of litigating change. Greece has partnered with a public firm to assist in the recognition and mining of sites. According to an article "Elkethe, which operates under the development ministry, has given the culture ministry access to its specialized resources, including a 42-metre (138-foot) oceanography boat (the Aigaio), a submersible (the Thetis), two remotely-guided craft and a team of expert divers."[footnoteRef:13] These tools and experienced treasure hunters have allowed the government to further its archeological goals. Organizations formed by agreements between leagues of nations have also adopted rules…
Sources Used in Document:
AFP. "A Rich Greek Archeology Frontier Lying Underwater." Khaleej Times (2005, June 24).
Aiken, Jonathan. "Antiquities Diplomacy." The American Spectator 42.1 (2009): 58-60.
Akal, Tuncay. "Surveillance and Protection of Underwater Archaeological Sites: Sea Guard." (accessed November 2, 2012) http://www.acoustics.org/press/155th/akal.htm