Treasure hunting (marine)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Treasure hunting is an expression which nowadays applies mainly to maritime salvage.[according to whom?] Treasure hunters try to find sunken shipwrecks and retrieve artifacts with market value. This industry is generally fueled by the market of antiquities.

Professional organisations generally invest considerable effort to ensure that their treasure hunting is legal and hence is not looting. By definition, looters work illegally. Other treasure hunters may infringe national or international law concerned with property ownership, marine salvage, sovereign or state vessels, commercial diving regulations, protection of cultural heritage and control of trade in antiquities.

Treasure hunters tend to fall in one of three main groups:

  1. small companies or individuals, working part-time, in shallow waters
  2. professional groups, sponsored by wealthy collectors, generally operating without any publicity
  3. well-advertised companies, seeking money from investors and generally not excessively worried with profitability.

Since the late 1990s, reacting against increasingly energetic efforts by the international community to stop the destruction of the world submerged cultural heritage, treasure hunting companies started hiring archaeologists and marketing directors, making public statements about their good intentions. Treasure hunting activity, however, is primarily motivated by potential for profit rather than for archaeological purposes.[citation needed] Even where good quality archaeological research is carried out by archaeologists working with treasure hunters, concerns remain that treasure hunting, by definition, ignores the principle that in-situ preservation of cultural heritage should always be considered first, and that the sale of recovered artifacts breaks up the assemblage of cultural heritage material, resulting in a loss of opportunity to study the whole picture. The counter argument is that professional salvors have the resources to fund archaeological research of sites that would otherwise be unrecorded, and be subject to destruction by looting or natural forces.

Treasure hunting can also refer to Geocaching which has also become a very popular sport in which participants utilize GPS units to find hidden (but not buried) caches of toys and trinkets.


McKee's Museum of Sunken Treasure, Treasure Harbor, Plantation Key, Florida

In 1643 Captain William Phips salvaged one of the sunken Spanish treasure ships forty-four years after they were wrecked on Silver Shoals. At the time, the salvages wreck was worth twelve millions dollars.[1] The Nuestra Señora de Atocha left Havana bound for Spain in 1622 and sank. Mel Fisher and his crew spent sixteen years searching for the treasure that was aboard the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Three silver bars were found in 1973, five bronze cannons were found in 1975, and in 1980 a wooden hull weighted down by ballast stones, iron cannon balls and artifacts of 17th century Spain were found.[2] The S.S. Central America sank after running into a hurricane off the Carolina coast in 1857. In 1987 Thomas G. Thompson discovered the ship’s location. A remotely operated vehicle surfaced more than forty million dollars in gold from the sunken ship.[3] In 1782 the British Frigate Grosvenor sank in Natal Bay, East Africa, carrying treasure cargo of 2,000 silver ingots, 720 gold ingots, and jewels including the fabulous “golden peacocks” from the throne of the Great Mogul, at Delhi, India. In 1952, British recovered almost 1 million dollars worth of the 5.3 million dollar loot and hid in Brazil to escape the British Government’s Tax.[4] The liner Laurentic heading from Liverpool to Halifax in 1917 collided into a mine and sunk with gold worth five million British pounds. Commander G.C.C. Damant was appointed to salvage the ship by England. Commander Damant aided by Dr. J.S. Haldane and A.Y. Cattoo discovered the cause and prevention of caisson disease (“the bends”) allowing them to make deep dives. Over seven seasons, all but 25 gold bars were recovered by Damant and his crew.[1] In 1994, the Odyssey Marine Exploration business venture began. This publicly traded company searches for treasure. In 2002 England entered into an arrangement with Odyssey in finding a British warship carrying billions of dollars worth of treasure. The ship sank in 1694 off the coast of Gibraltar.[5] In 2009 Terry Herbert in Staffordshire field found Anglo-Saxon gold, silver, and garnet objects valued at over five million dollars. Also in 2009, David Booth found four gold torques from the first century B.C. in Stirling, Scotland.[6]


Rubberized suits, weighted belts and shoes, and helmets are used for deep sea diving.[1] Diving bells, open helmets, atmospheric diving suits were used. Deep sea exploration today is accomplished using Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (“SCUBA”), unmanned submersible vehicles, Remote Operating Vehicles (“ROVs”), and exposure suits. Sound Navigation and Ranging (“Sonar”) and magnetometers are used for detection of treasure.[5] Hand tools, probes, screens, containers, shovels, metal detectors, and sifters are useful for land treasure hunting (Smith, 1971). The Evinrude Aquanaut is a portable floating diving unit that feeds air directly to the divers without need of tanks on the divers.[4] In diving, masks allow for improved vision, fins increase swimming speeds, safety vests provide lifesaving assistance, diver’s flags alert others of a diver’s location, wetsuits conserve body heat and also provide skin protection, weight belts offset buoyancy of rubber suits, knives prove useful as a tool, tanks supply air, and snorkels conserve energy.[7]


In 1906. the Secretaries of the Interior of Agriculture and War made an Act for the preservation of American Antiquities (ancient artifacts). This Act says that each Secretary of the Interior would have their own specific authority over different artifacts or locations based on their department. These artifacts and locations are as follows: Historic landmarks, historic monuments, objects of antiquity, objects of scientific value and historical value. The Secretary of Agriculture has jurisdiction over artifacts and monuments found within the outer limits of Forest reserves. The secretary of War for any land that resides in or near a military reserve. The lands that are controlled by the US Government will be supervised by the respective Secretary. Permits will not be granted to those trying to move or take any monument or artifact that can be preserved in its original place and remain an ancient monument. A permit will not be granted to someone “whose eyes are bigger than their stomach.” In other words those trying to explore a vast amount of area with little help and the job seems to not be done within the time limit designated by the certain someone, that permit will not be granted. Each permit will be granted by the respective Secretaries that have jurisdiction over those certain sites. Also including to the permit just stated above you also need these following requirements: The name of the Institution making the request, how much time it will take, the date, the person in charge of the project, what type of project it is going to be, excavating, gathering or examining, and the museum where the artifact will be shown and preserved. Each permit will only be granted for 3 years or less. An extension can be granted if progress is shown. Permits will not be in effect if work does not begin within six months of getting the permit.[4] In the United States the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, which asserts the federal government’s ownership of abandoned United States water shipwrecks, was put into place in 1988. Any shipwreck that is embedded in submerged lands and/or in coralline formations protected by a State on submerged lands of a State is property of the government. The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act then transfers ownership to the appropriate State government. The Supreme Court upheld the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act constitutionality in 1998. In the US, the finder of a ship not abandoned could seek a salvage award.[5] The countries England, Wales, and Northern Ireland claim gold and silver finds that are more than three hundred years old for the crown by way of the Treasure Act of 1996. Any found treasure in these nations must be reported within fourteen days of uncovering. The United States awards ownership to the landowner. If finds occur on federal land it can be considered a federal offense. Most of the United States prosecutes the unearthing of burial grounds.[6]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bass, George F. “After the Diving is Over,” Underwater Archaeology Proceedings, Toni Carrell, ed., Society for Historical Archaeology, 1990, 10-13.
  • Bass, George F. “The Men Who Stole the Stars,” INA Newsletter, Vol. 15, No. 2, 11.
  • Castro, Filipe. "Treasure Hunting", [1]
  • Draper, Robert. “Indian Takers,” Texas Monthly, March, 1993, 104-107, 121-124.
  • Elia, Ricardo. “Nautical Shenanigans [review of book Walking the Plank],” Archaeology, Vol. 48, No. 1, January–February, 1995, 79-84.
  • Haldane, Cheryl. “The Abandoned Shipwreck Act,” INA Newsletter, Vol. 15, No. 2, 9.
  • Renfrew, Colin, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership. London: Duckworth, 2000.
  • Throckmorton, Peter. “The World’s Worst Investment: The Economics of Treasure Hunting with Real Life Comparisons,” Underwater Archaeology Proceedings, Toni Carrell, ed., Society for Historical Archaeology, 1990, 6-10.
  • United States Senate. Public Law 100-298 [S. 858], Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, April 28, 1988 (Courtesy of Calvin R. Cummings).


  1. ^ a b c Helm, T. (1960). Treasure Hunting Around the World. New York: Dodd, Mead.
  2. ^ Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum in Key West, Florida. (n.d.). Nuestra Señora de Atocha, Santa Margarita Spanish Galleons of 1622. Retrieved March 28, 2017, from
  3. ^ Zabludovsky, K. (2016, February 27). Shipwreck of S.S. Central America Yields More Gold. Retrieved March 28, 2017, from
  4. ^ a b c Rieseberg, H. (1970). Fell's Complete Guide to Buried Treasure: Land and Sea. New York: F. Fell.
  5. ^ a b c Malkiel, Y. (2013). An evolutionary look at the law, technology, and economics of sunken treasure. Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce, 44(2), 195-217.
  6. ^ a b Newman, C. (2017, March 24). Finders Keepers? Not Always in Treasure Hunting. Retrieved March 28, 2017, from
  7. ^ Horner, D. (1965). Shipwrecks, Skin Divers, and Sunken Gold. New York: Dodd, Mead.