In these two BBC World Service 23 minute programmes, broadcast in 2008 and 2009, archaeologist Win Scutt plunges underwater to reveal the historical and monetary wealth that lies at the bottom at the sea. And asks the question how should we protect this treasure trove?

Audio Prog 1

Audio Prog 2

Go to transcript of Programme 1

TRANSCRIPT OF PROGRAMME 2 "The Treasure Hunters"

OPENING ANNOUNCEMENT: Time now for the second part of “What lies beneath”. Today, Win Scutt investigates how the treasures of the deep should be protected.

Mike Hatcher Clip with MUSIC (40”)

“Where there is fish, there’s got to be something… And then we see a cannon… and so we dug a bit … we found some broken porcelain… And then it just grew and grew until we got 150,000 pieces of porcelain. And then within the very last few days, we found the gold… We were sitting on deck, and next thing, the diver is screaming at the top of his voice. Surface! Gold! And he came up to the surface. He had all this gold stuck in his wetsuit, tried to stand up, fell down and all the gold cluttered onto the deck…”

Mike HatcherThe thrill of treasure hunting described there by Captain Mike Hatcher, the discoverer of the Nanking Cargo in the South China Seas, one of the most lucrative cargos ever found. Having made a discovery or two myself as an archaeologist, I can see why many would find such tales not only exciting but also very enticing. But as I’ll be finding out in this programme, treasure hunting has too often meant the loss of crucial historical information. And most of the archaeologists I’ve spoken to are warning that unless something is done rapidly, humanity’s underwater cultural heritage will simply disappear.


Part of the problem they say is that finding a treasure is not as difficult as one would think. Lee Spence is a pioneer in underwater archaeology and he’s been studying shipwrecks and sunken treasures for nearly 50 years now.

Lee Clip 1 (25”)

“People think shipwrecks are very rare, but there are actually a couple million of them in the world. There are a lot easier to find than most people think. But I have found hundreds of wrecks over the years. In fact, in one day, I actually found 28 previously undiscovered shipwrecks, in one day. And a ship can have a thousand tons of cargo that was brand new the day it went down. On land you would never find something like that.”

It’s been estimated that over the years, Lee Spence has salvaged over 50 million dollars in valuable artefacts. He says is only a minuscule proportion of what is out there. He believes that up to two thirds of all the gold mined before the 20th century could still be resting on the ocean floor.

Lee Clip 2 (38”)

"Spain was shipping treasure out of the New World every year from the 1520s through the 1820s. So there were 300 years of treasure that was being shipped. In war-time, they might be shipping 50 million dollars in gold in one vessel. Most people would think that that’s where you would find the most treasure along those trade routes. And there is a lot of treasure. In fact, there is one 50 mile stretch of Florida coast, that’s been nicknamed the treasure coast because you pretty much cannot go a mile without finding another treasure wreck lying there.”

(MUSIC fade out)

Mike Williams clip (42”)

“A lot of value is not the monetary value but the knowledge, what it tells us about the past.”

Mike Williams is an expert in the law relating to underwater cultural heritage. For all the excitement it provides, he says excavating a wreck for its treasure all too often happens at the cost of archaeology.

“There’s a very famous recording and it shows a diver who is opening a wooden chest of Ming pottery. And what he does is he breaks the chest open with a crowbar. And the side of the chest gets swept away in the current and disappears. On the outside of the chest, were markings, which would reveal exactly where the pottery had come from, who had made it. And that was lost. If you don’t use the correct methodology, then frankly it amounts to cultural vandalism.”

A view shared by Ulrike Koschtial from UNESCO, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, where she is responsible for the protection of underwater cultural heritage.

Ulrike Clip 1 (26”)

“It’s little bit like this Indiana Jones situation, where you have a big deal of pillaging. More than 30 major shipwrecks that have been commercially exploited in Asia for instance and then we speak of 500 hundreds object per ship. When you see these numbers, this is huge, huge, huge. Countries loose a lot of their cultural heritage that go to market countries, where things are sold of; and they loose of course part of their identity, their history, what’s happening in their country.”

One such country is South Africa, where it is believed that most of the region’s valuable shipwrecks have already been salvaged. And this hasn’t meant the looting has stopped either. Jonathan Sharfman is a local maritime archaeologist.

Jonathan Clip (20”)

“With the increase in scrap metal prices, we’ve found that divers are targeting shipwrecks that have things like copper or tin, that weren’t necessarily that valuable in the past, even things like led. It is becoming a problem that people are looting sites, that have already been worked by salvage organisation as well as going to new shipwrecks sites that weren’t that attractive for salvage in the past.”

In many ways, it is a similar situation to what happened with land archaeology in the 19th century, when there was almost no regulation; meaning cultural artefacts could easily be retrieved and sold away from their countries.

Ulrike Clip 2 (27”)

“Fortunately land sites are better and better protected. On the other hand, the art market is calling for more and more objects because art market prices are rising so of course the attraction to go treasure hunting somewhere else is rising. And for me it’s a sad thing to see on websites or in journals, like maps where you find little crosses, here and here and here, you could find a shipwreck that has a lot of money on it. Please! This is a testimony to a historic event and we shouldn’t make a little cross saying here you can find a treasure.”

Unlike its land counterpart, far from sight, far from mind, underwater cultural heritage has remained largely unprotected. But most of it was for a long in international waters, where it remained largely inaccessible.

Mike Hatcher clip (44”)

“The problem with underwater cultural heritage really is advance of technology. Technologies which simply didn’t exist 10, 15 years ago. ROVs, which are remotely operated vehicles. You can now do things with a ROV, which in many ways you can’t do with a human diver. With the result that you can access wrecks which you simply couldn’t get to before. One of the difficulties is that there isn’t a legal regime out there in international waters that controls the issue. Really the protection has come from the depth, and that’s why the problem is a relatively new one.”


Greg Stemm clip (25”)

“Back in the late eighties, my partner and I bought a research vessel. We knew that there were billions of dollars worth of historically significant and fascinating things lying on the ocean bottom. We knew that the technology existed to find these things and to archaeologically excavate these things. Nobody seemed to be doing it, so we just took a stab at it.”

Greg Stemm is one of the co-founders of Odyssey, a deep ocean salvage company based in the United States. Last year, they discovered what is considered to be the largest treasure ever found, possibly worth 500 million dollars.

(News clip: Black Swan clip)

However their find has proven controversial, with Spain claiming the ship is one of their sovereign vessels and accusing Odyssey of looting. The case is currently being heard in a court in Florida in the United States. Greg Stemm denies being a treasure hunter, and insists Odyssey has always followed strict archaeological guidelines. But he does agree that the problem is one of a lack of regulation.

Greg Stemm clip (57”)

“In the next 50 years, I bet we will have completely mapped the bottom of the oceans of the world. We’ll know where every shipwreck is. We’re out there knocking several square miles per year. We’re the responsible ones. We take note of where they are, if it’s a cultural significant wreck, we leave it there. I don’t think that’s always going to happen. I think you’re going to see hobbyists out there, people trawling nets through these sites. And it’s up to us to figure a mechanism over the next 50 years to make sure that the data we can garner from them isn’t lost for ever.

[Win: But you’re kind of opening a Pandora’s box in a way, aren’t you? I mean if you’re revealing so many new wreck sites, wouldn’t it be better not to know where they are in the first place?]

Well, it might be better not to know where they are in the first place. But one thing about humans they will not leave an area unexplored if they have the capacity to explore. You can count on that."


You’re listening to “What Lies Beneath” from the BBC World Service, with me Win Scutt. We’ve heard how the ocean is a fantastic treasure trove, both in historical and monetary terms. But it is also a treasure trove that needs protecting. So how could we protect it? Well, one obvious argument would be to say that every single shipwreck and underwater city should be excavated and this only by archaeologists. But this could turn out to incredibly expensive… as I found out when I went to visit one of the world’s most famous wrecks.

NEWS ACTUALITY – MARY ROSE being lifted out of water in 1982 ALEX AND WIN CLIP (17”)

Win: It was such a big thing wasn’t it such a big thing when the whole ship was lifted out of the water?

Alex: It was at that time the longest and largest outside broadcast the BBC had ever done and it is estimated that 17 million people worldwide watched that as the ship came up. Alex Hildred was one of the archaeologists involved in the excavation of the Mary Rose back in the early 1980s, and has been working on the wreck ever since. An impressive ship, incredibly well conserved, the Mary Rose has provided crucial new information on Britain’s Tudor period; and as such, is considered a landmark in world archaeology. But its excavation was a massive operation, which lasted 3 years and involved over 350 divers, most of them volunteers. The total cost was around 5 and half million dollars. And the cost didn’t stop there…

ATMOS (walking in, opening, Win “it’s dark”)

Win on location (35” with atmos)

“Win: It’s weird. It’s like looking at a ghost, just an enormous ghost in the shadows. I can see a sort of great black shape in there. It starts to become clear that it is half a ship that we’re looking at.

Alex: You see the lights are coming up now and you can see more of the ship

Win: But it is ghostly, because we’re kind of looking through a mist, aren’t we?

Alex: Well, that’s the polyethylene glycol, which is in the spray system to try and conserve the ship. It’s a liquid wax that is being put into the timbers in order to conserve it.”

Only three timbers were visible when archaeologists first discovered the Mary Rose. Almost all the ship had remained buried under mud, in oxygen free sediments. Once taken out of the water, the wood would have simply dried out and turned to dust had it not been sprayed without interruption for the last 25 years. And this has meant spending at least another million dollars a year.

Alex Clip (21”)

“Our challenge for the future and for anybody who finds ships is not only the initial conservation, but also maintaining of those objects in the correct environment for ever. And that’s the long term thing is that we’re always going to have to keep a roof over for the ship of a certain temperature, of certain humidity and of certain light level for it to be preserved. And that’s expensive.”

Quite tellingly, there hasn’t been any other excavation in the world on a similar scale for at least a decade now. New regulations on how to use divers, stricter archaeological guidelines, and especially a better awareness of the costs involved afterwards, have meant that archaeologists think twice before raising a ship.

Alex Hildred clip (23”)

“Really if one were to find it now and there’d only be 3 timbers exposed, one would probably at least ask the question: should we be leaving it in situ?

Win: Are you really saying that if this were to be found again, say we’d never found the Mary Rose, and it was to suddenly turn up today, do you really think that it wouldn’t be excavated?

I don’t think it will ever happen again, I think we were incredibly lucky.”

Lee Spence clip (”)

A lot of archaeologists do not feel the Mary Rose was done to proper archaeology, that they shouldn’t have even used the volunteers. But if you were to do every wreck to do that standard, you’re talking about a hundred trillion dollars. There’s just no way you could ever come up with that money.


And for that reason, rather than forsaking most of the world’s shipwrecks, treasure hunter Lee Spence argues that their commercial exploitation should be allowed, as long as some archaeological guidelines are being followed. A position Greg Stemm from Odyssey agrees with. The key thing he says is to distinguish between cultural goods, which need protecting and trade goods, which can be sold.

Greg Stemm clip (1’09”)

“Trade goods are characterised by mass produced artefacts porcelain, dishes, coins, bottles, things that you might have 10 thousand, 50 thousand or 100 thousand of on a shipwreck and there really is no good archaeological reason to keep them all together. They don’t tell you about life at sea, about navigation, about the crew, about ship construction. In the case of a shipwreck like the SS Republic that went down in 1865 we still did a very careful archaeological excavation of that site, but we felt very comfortable selling the 50 thousand coins from that site. We happen to believe that the private sector makes for very good curation of collections. People are really passionate about what they collect. So I can make an argument that you’re going to see a lot more study of artefacts that are actually placed in private hands than things that are sitting in the storerooms of museums. And as you well know Win, museums are screaming they don’t want another artefact! They don’t have any room to store these things.”

But not everyone is convinced… Ulrike Koschtial from UNESCO strongly believes that cultural artefacts, whatever their nature, should belong to all and not a few isolated individuals. Back in 2001, the organisation drafted a convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage, the first of its kind, which should come into force by the end of 2008.

Ulrike Koschtial clip (38”)

“What we only want to make sure is that archaeological sites are not exploited for commercial reasons. So there should be an intervention for a scientific reason and not we dive down to get the money. And then you also have to ensure that any recovery of the underwater cultural heritage achieves the maximum protection of this heritage.”

But the organisation is also very much aware of the high costs involved in underwater archaeology. So as a first principle UNESCO actually recommends to leave things where they are, a concept which is referred to as preservation in situ.

Ulrike Koschtial clip (”)

“Underwater archaeology is still in development so maybe it’s not a bad choice to say give us a bit of time to learn what you’re doing and do not take everything out now. Maybe you go down in 50 years and you see that you can do much better than you can do now.”

And UNESCO further believes that preservation in situ could also give rise to a new form of tourism, as underwater museums and dive trails are developed around the artefacts on location. There actually already is such a museum, off the coast of Israel, in Caesarea.

ATMOS: Caesarea sea

Back in the times of Jesus, the ancient port of Caesarea was built by King Herod to honour his Roman patron, Caesar Augustus. Most of the port has since disappeared under water. But today equipped with a waterproof map, divers and snorkelers can swim along the signposts and admire the relics of this once prominent port town. An appealing experience, which I couldn’t resist trying out myself… So I took my wetsuit to Israel.

 Win Scutt 2008

ATMOS: Caesarea sea

ACTUALITY: Avi giving diving brief (19”)

“Avi: Dive time 40 to 50 metres, max depth 8 metres. OK?

Win: Any hazards? Any boats?

Avi: No hazards. Just don’t touch the conic snails. They have a harpoon for hunting. It’s not lethal but it is unpleasant.” (fades out)

WIN underwater (2’01)

(Heavy breathing and bubbles throughout) Ready we’re going down… Thumbs down is the signal to descend. Now I can see a column in front of me, a large stone column. And another column over there. Kind of whole fragments of the city on the sea bed. It’s almost like the whole city has exploded. I’m going to have a look at the map now. Now this waterproof map gives you a trail.

Waterproof Trail Guide, CaesareaNow the thing about this trail is that we’re actually seeing parts of the underwater world that the Romans never saw. I think I’m going to clear my ears a bit, I think we’ve dropped a little bit of depth so (blows). Ah, the rope is now taking me to the next iron peg fixed into the sea bed with the number of 11. So under me, is the Herodian quay according to my thing. So actually what I’m looking at is an old quay surface. And I can imagine Roman fishermen, and merchants’ people, all sorts of sailors walking along this quay side. How extraordinary that it’s actually sunk and all just perfectly preserved. Now I’ve just arrived at number 12! This is the remains of a late Roman shipwreck, a cargo of raw marble blocks and coffins. First time I have ever seen a Roman shipwreck, certainly in situ, in its original place. Isn’t that the best place to see it? It’s really amazing to experience the past in this way. I’ve now worked for many years in museums and I’ve always felt that the best way to experience the past is actually to see remains in their context like this. It’s like flying over an archaeological site… (Breathing fades out)

You’re listening to “What lies beneath”, from the BBC World Service.

Visitor Centre, Caesarea

I was definitely convinced by my dive in Caesarea, but I’m also aware that while increasingly popular, diving does remain an expensive hobby. But there are other alternatives being explored. One being a project for Alexandria’s Harbour where the idea would be to allow visitors down into an underwater glassed structure for them to see the ancient remains of Sphinxes and other Egyptian artefacts. But not everyone shares such enthusiasm for preservation in situ. Nic Flemming is an underwater archaeologist, who specialises in prehistorically submerged landscapes.

Nic Flemming clip (42”)

“Sometimes people ask me look you’ve just found a Greek city or something, which was 2000, 300 or 400 years old, and it’s lasted that time and it’s decayed in the last 5 years. Very reluctantly, what I’ve come to feel is that when we discover something on the sea bed very often it is a sort of window, that the circumstances have preserved it for a 1000, 5000 or 10000 years under sediment or mud or something like that. The year before we got there, the mud moved away and 10 years later, it’s going to be gone. If the bureaucratic reaction is Ok, the UNESCO says here, here’s the blue print, leave it. That seems to be a recipe for disaster.”

And Nic saw his concerns confirmed recently. A survey carried out in England showed that more than 40% of its historic shipwrecks are in danger of being lost forever as many have been allowed to decay. Clearly, leaving things where they are also comes with a high risk of vandalism and natural decline. But those who are apprehensive about the UNESCO convention may not need to worry quite yet… It will very likely get the 20 countries needed to ratify it, for it to come into force, but will only apply to those countries. Most of the world’s maritime powers, such as Britain, France and Russia and more importantly the one with the strongest salvage industry, the United States, are showing no intention of signing it. The reason has actually little to do with archaeology. Legal expert on underwater cultural heritage, Mike Williams.

Mike Clip (39”)

“It’s a geopolitical issue. The Western maritime states are very keen on freedom of the sea, as they call it, limiting the rights of coastal states. That very much runs through their political and legal traditions. They do agree that something needs to be done but what they’re fearful of, is that if they sign up to the UNESCO convention, then they will have an anarchy with coastal states claiming excessive jurisdiction out for 200 miles or more. And that they regard as a bigger political problem than the protection of underwater cultural heritage.”

The UNESCO convention would indeed give coastal states certain rights over wrecks found in their waters. For instance, if a French vessel was to be found in Brazilian waters, Brazil would then have a duty to protect it and therefore have a say in how it should be done. So what alternatives are maritime powers considering? Doing nothing is not an option anymore. Even the most famous shipwrecks of all needs protecting… Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the RMS Titanic has been warning that the wreck has become a victim of its own fame….

Ballard Clip (20”):

Damage caused by submarines, and they’ve been landing a lot on the deck and that’s really where the damage has been done. They leave a very definitive marker and you can just see them all over the ship. And you know if you can’t protect the Titanic what, prey tell can you protect in the ocean? But such warnings have prompted a response.

Mike Williams clip (21”)

“Canada, America, France and Britain have negotiated an agreement to protect the RMS Titanic, which is situated on the Canadian continental shelf. And it would make it an offence for nationals or flagged vessels of those countries to interfere with the Titanic without authorisation.”

So instead of signing the UNESCO convention, maritime powers might prefer a series of case by case multilateral agreements between specific countries, like they did with the Titanic.

Mike Williams clip (30”)

“The very fact that the Convention is in existence, let alone come into force has meant that governments have been forced to address the issue, which previously they hadn’t. As a lawyer to me it doesn’t really matter whether underwater cultural heritage is protected by the UNESCO convention or whether it is protected by a series of multilateral agreements. The point is that it will be protected and that is a vast improvement from the situation that we have now.”

And so where does this leave treasure hunters?

Mike Williams clip (16”)

“I think there is nervousness. But that nervousness is limited by the fact that they realise that you’re probably looking still at a 10, 15 year process before they are really affected. And I think most of them at the moment take the view that they’ll either have made their money by then or gone bankrupt.”

(Fade MUSIC)

Backanno: Mike Williams ending our second and final edition of “What Lies Beneath”, presented by Win Scutt and produced by Estelle Doyle.

Estelle Doyle

© BBC World Service 2008






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Win Scutt is an archaeologist, lecturer and broadcaster based in Devon, UK.