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Technically Speaking: To Take or Not to Take

We are only 200 years old! How I really dislike this line. It’s got to be the worst excuse I get when a discussion circles around Australia’s history, heritage and protection.

Why do people in general assume that our history is insignificant because it’s not old? That most non-aboriginal structures are not to be counted as heritage? We sometimes seem to even ignore aboriginal history, which is virtually unknown to a majority of people; a real shame when Australia’s indigenous history is documented well over 40 thousand years.

So when we start talking about maritime history, a shipwreck that is less than 75 years old seems not to be significant enough to be protected.
What I am concentrating here is on those divers and groups, which have good intentions of protecting shipwrecks but seem to make matters complicated, and often these shipwrecks become another wasteland and another historical relic lost forever.

The interesting fact about those that call for artefacts to be collected from wrecks, and then displayed in some museum or in a recorded private collection tend to say that items such as portholes are just another piece of metal with no value to archaeology or history of the ship. Maybe this is true as no museum would even want them though having these items in situ is a benefit to divers that dive these wrecks, instead of an empty shell of metal where you have to bring your imagination to make sense of where there used to be items to look at.

Collectors say that if these items are left on the ocean floor they will eventually disappear. Then why wrecks that over 1000 years old still hold artefacts  around the world; artefacts in all kind of water conditions? This argument doesn’t hold any value, and the fact leaving items in situ doesn’t mean they will be naturally destroyed.
Despite what argument people bring to the table or on which side of the fence their ideas are, most are looking at ways to protect some part of the wreck – whether it’s the artefacts or the site itself. Everyone will have their own ideas on how to do this, from bringing everything up, to keeping the site a secret from the public and even government officials. Are any of these really viable options? Or does it even benefit anyone in the long term?

Bringing artefacts up for display is the best way to save them, and also give non-divers in our communities to share the history. Complete ships have been brought up such as the Merry Rose and the Vasa, though at tremendous financial costs. This is something which no government of our current time would ever agree to. The Merry Rose and the Vasa are remarkable relics on display today. To bring even the smallest of items to the surface still require significant work to treat and display, costs which still need to be met.

Divers often think that government officials always against bringing artefacts from shipwrecks, and that everything must be kept in situ. This is far from the truth, and in fact most archaeologists would prefer to do complete digs on sites, study the shipwreck and bring up artefacts to treat and display them to the public, with a complete story of its history. Is this realistically possible to do on every site? And in particularly on sites that are deep? With modern technology and divers with knowledge of deep diving and archaeology it certainly is possible. The only factor this comes down to is cost and time.

When complete site excavation is not possible, those divers that find new wrecks will often resort to keeping the site a secret. Their idea is that if no one knows where the site is it will stay protected from looting, and they get to dive it and enjoy it for themselves. The intention may be good but if history is anything to go by, others often find out these divers while diving on this site, and without the original founders’ knowledge or anyone else in the community, other divers start to dive the site and loot the artefacts. The issue with all this is there is no way to protect the site, or even gather any archaeological information before the site is forever damaged. Keeping it secret will not yield anything either, since finders often will not report the site because they know that Heritage office officials will eventually must make these sites public knowledge, and other divers will be diving the site.

The problem with all this secrecy is significant sites never get any archaeology to gather information, public don’t get to learn any history, and divers never get to dive the site. So what is the solution?

The solution is actually quite simple, yet elements within the diving and marine archaeology seem to make it more complicated than it should be. Have you noticed the same question being asked of the same thing – fast access? Fast access to the site, wether it’s archaeologists or divers. Speed is the essence to protect a shipwreck. Once one item is removed the site is forever been altered, the damage this does to the site is irreversible. We only get one chance and one chance only to learn and record any history associated with this wreck. To say that any solution will protect a site is being too ambitious, because it’s impossible to police any wreck site. So how do we insure that the site can be recorded before it’s forever lost?

The idea which I think can work and simple enough is as follows; a group of divers find a new shipwreck, they immediately report this to their Heritage department in their state or territory, the Heritage department announce the find to the public immediately, without giving the position of the wreck site. Then the finders get the first opportunity to conduct a site survey, or if they not familiar with survey work they will be given assistance by those that are experienced in this kind of work.

The Heritage Department give any required assistance to the divers doing the survey, and provide them with any information and guidance needed. Once this work has been completed, the wreck site is open to the public to access with any local laws protecting it.

What we did with above is just answered what everyone is asking for. Finders get the first priority to survey the wreck site, the public learns of this new discovery straight away, and then divers get to dive the site very quickly without any hidden agendas. Also finders get the recognition for finding and sharing the site.

What happens next is the Heritage department are responsible for policing the site; this is not a job for divers or the public. When there is visibility of who is diving the site there will be reluctance in looting the site. Realistically we all know that no site can be monitored every moment, and wrecks will no doubt be eventually looted. Even though this is most likely to happen, all information on the site already been collected initially when it was found, so not all is lost.

As divers we spend time and money to get to these sites, to enjoy them for what they are underwater museums. The concept of underwater museum is new and already a few sites in Greece and Egypt have been established for divers, so why not treat our own wreck sites as such?

Most problems that are encountered have simple solutions, in order for people to act on these solutions there must be more communication between divers, and between divers and government officials. We must work together to achieve these common goals, which at the end of the day are the same.

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