The Commodification of Cultural Heritage







Why does the ICAU take issue with National Geographic's policies?


    What the Article was About

      In the September 2004 Issue of National Geographic, a company called Odyssey Marine
 Exploration Inc., excavated the SS Republic, a 140 year old civil war steamer in international
waters off of the coast of Georgia. Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., while having legal rights
to the salvage operation, presented the expedition via National Geographic as archaeological,
although the purpose of the expedition was to collect coins and the majority of the artifacts
recovered are in the process of being split up and sold to private collectors.

     Why this is a problem

      Public perceptions of underwater archaeology are heavily influenced by National Geographic in the United States, a company which has a long track record of supporting both solid, ethical underwater projects (see Watery Graves of the Maya in the October 2003) and extremely unethical destruction of cultural heritage (see Quest for the Atocha on the National Geographic Channel).

     Why are only submerged sites (for the most part) being pillaged? Because current legislation applies only to terrestrial sites. Archaeological sites which are in the ocean are subject to the 'law of the sea', and admiralty rights, meaning that someone can claim an archaeological site as their own property if they find it. 

     Under article 3 of the United Nations Guidelines detailed in the ICOMOS Charter for the Protection and Management of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, 'Project funding must not require the sale of underwater cultural heritage or the use of any strategy that will cause underwater cultural heritage and supporting documentation to be irretrievably dispersed.'

      The Directors of ICAU wrote a letter to national Geographic, pointing out the discrepancies between their terrestrial and underwater policies regarding cultural heritage. You can view this letter and National Geographic’s response in the January 2005 issue of National Geographic, but we will also post it here:

As graduate students in the maritime archaeology discipline, we were very excited to see an article on a shipwreck that is part of our American heritage. Yet we were astounded by what we read. The maritime archaeology community has been working for decades to stop commercial salvage companies from destroying shipwrecks for gain. The breaking up of archaeological collections and selling of artifacts is prohibited on archaeological sites around the globe, but for some reason, if the same sites are underwater, these rules do not apply. It is clear from reading the article that the objective was to collect coins. These artifacts will soon be sold to private collectors, and it will be impossible to study the collection as a whole. This project was about looting for profit, plain and simple.

                                                        Brad Garrett
                                                        Erika Stein
                                                        Townsville, Queensland

     This was National Geographic's response:

Although Odyssey Marine Exploration, the salvage company that discovered the Republic, will sell the artifacts, they performed an excavation that was legal, safe, and professional. And, as its marine archaeologist says in the story, only a commercial operation could afford such an expensive deep-sea recovery. 

     What we propose to do about it

     This unacceptable response motivated the directors to begin efforts to change National Geographic’s archaic policies. Mark Staniforth, chair of ACUA and Cos Coroneos, president of AIMA, have both writen letters on behalf of their respective organizations in an effort to encourage National Geographic to fall in line with the ICOMOS guidelines for the Protection and Management of Archaeological Heritage.

      In addition, efforts to organize a session at the next SHA conference to revive discussion on the commodification of cultural resources is currently underway. Toni Carrell, the underwater research editor for the SHA has been extremely helpful and inspiring in helping to coordinate efforts to make this happen.

      We would like to encourage the public to contact National Geographic and voice your concern regarding the magazines outdated policies regarding submerged cultural heritage. The online article and a forum for discussion on National Geographic's website can be found here [+]









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