Treasure Hunters, So Few So Loud – United States Perspective – By Dr. Anne Giesecke

February 14, 2010

The purpose of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA) was to remove shipwrecks in state waters from the federal admiralty court.  After all, the states had the right to permit excavation of state land for any other purpose, sand, oil etc.  Unfortunately, I underestimated the territorial power grab of the federal courts that started about the same time, the early 1980’s,  that has resulted in them declaring jurisdiction over concepts such as abandoned or whatever as well as global claims for the Titanic, Lusitania and the Bismarck.   The federal court applied their power grab even   more aggressively to business by running companies like AT & T and GM.  So the purpose of the ASA was partially met as states had to fight fewer claims in federal court and could put more energy into establishing underwater parks and programs.  The primary purpose of the ASA, from an historical perspective was educational.

The high profile debate of the 1980’s in the US Congress with hearings in the House and Senate resulted in the education of the general public about underwater cultural resources.  As a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, I worked hard to involve the sport divers in the debate.   The discussions served to educate the sport divers about the political process which continues to have impact as sport divers attend local meetings on beach access, fishing rights and pollution issues.  Education is a slow process but just as sport divers now work hard to protect coral reefs, many work hard to preserve historic shipwrecks.

The culture has changed.   Archaeologists of the 1960’s did not consider submerged prehistoric or historic sites a proper subject of study; too messed up if they existed at all.  Bass changed some of that thinking with his work in the Mediterranean and Ruppe with his work in the Gulf of Mexico.  Colorado had a shipwreck law in 1963 but it wasn’t until the 1970’s and the location of treasure coins and then ships off the Florida coast that anyone had much interest.  Florida developed a law and let some permits to salvors in the 1970’s but haven’t since.  Members of the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) formed a committee called the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology to advocate the study of underwater cultural resources and to consider the role of the treasure salvor.   The culture has changed, there are fewer salvors but they are more high tech and fiscally sophisticated.

As I have suggested for years the Society for Historical Archaeology no longer needs the advocacy or expense of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology.  Papers on underwater archaeology are published in the Journal and papers at the meetings are offered in sessions with papers for that cultural subject.  The UNESCO Committee advocates support for the International Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.  SHA should cut the costs of supporting the ACUA, one web site and one board.

Most shipwrecks are trash and should be removed to prevent ocean pollution.  We cannot preserve historic shipwrecks if the waters are polluted.   Most underwater cultural resources are destroyed by dredging, trawling and port development. The historic preservation community should work more closely with the natural resource organizations to create positive environments for the benefit of all.  Let us keep changing the culture.


Dr. Giesecke holds a B.A. and M.Ed. from Boston University; a M.A. in Anthropology from State University of New York at Binghamton; and a Ph. D. in Anthropology from the Catholic University of America.  Consultants on clean water, underwater cultural resources and the National Register of Historic Places. Drafted the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. Presented Testimony before the House and Senate and has written numerous articles. In 1991 began advising the International Law Association on the International Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and attended the Paris UNESCO meetings in 1997, 1999 and 2001.  Field work on prehistoric, historic or shipwreck sites in Kenya, France, England, Bermuda, and a dozen states of the United States.

* The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.



  1. Before reading this article I had never even heard of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. You are correct in your belief that things must be done in order to prevent the oceans from getting polluted or damaged. What surprised me about your article is, after talking about the importance of historic preservation, you state that most shipwrecks should be removed from the ocean. While I agree with you in the fact that these shipwrecks do rick polluting the ocean, it surprised me to read that in this article.

  2. “Most shipwrecks are trash”– agreed. And were it not for trash, archaeology as we know it would not exist.
    U/W archaeology is sufficiently different from dry-land work to warrant ongoing advocacy, both within the profession and without. Dry-land practitioners, accustomed to stratigraphic deposition (think time-lapse photography) have trouble contextualizing single events like shipwrecks (think snapshot), despite singularities from Laetoli to Cerén to Pompeii.
    Moving into the mainstream (at last!) doesn’t mean that U/W archaeology has lost its identity; if anything, a robust scholarly presence is needed more than ever to represent the interests of submerged cultural resources to umbrella groups lile UNESCO.

  3. Dear Anne Giesecke,

    My name is Keli Asamoah; I was born in Ghana, earned a Bachelor of Science in Agronomy from Tuskegee University in Alabama, and have served both as a Water Specialist in the U.S. Army, and an Agriculture Specialist at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

    I am fascinated with human history and the potential exciting evidence of the transcontinental excursions that took place 400 to 500 years ago between Holland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the West African Coast. The bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ghana must surely be ripe with ship wrecks, human remains and various cargo discarded from top heavy ships whose captains needed to lighten their load.

    Have you considered exploring the sea bottom off Ghana (the Gold Coast)? I am closely connected to members of the current administration and I would love it if an organization like yours could help to uncover buried maritime secrets of Ghana’s colonial past, particularly in the Western Region and Upper Volta Region (via the River Volta) where British Slavers would have undoubtedly explored as a result of the impenetrable resistance shown by the Ashanti tribe along Ghana’s southwestern coast. Please respond.

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