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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.8, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.5, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.8, RI.6-8.10, W.6-8.1, W.6-8.5, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Power, Authority, and Governance • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society

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Sunken Treasure: Finders Keepers?

Some explorers spend years—and millions of dollars—searching for shipwrecks. Should they be allowed to keep what they find? 

Fer Gregory/Shutterstock.com

For more than three Years, Robert Pritchett and his crew searched the waters off the east coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. Day after day, they woke at dawn and spent hours using high-tech equipment to scour the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, in May 2016, Pritchett found what he had been searching for—the remains of a ship called La Trinité.

The vessel had set sail from France more than 450 years earlier, in a fleet sent to protect Florida, then a French colony, from Spanish invaders. But La Trinité sank in a storm in 1565.

Pritchett’s team recovered three bronze cannons and dozens of other artifacts from the ship’s wreckage. But they didn’t get to keep what they had found. By international law, sunken warships may be claimed by the country they are originally from—no matter how much time has passed. When France claimed La Trinité, a U.S. federal court ruled in its favor.

The case renewed an old debate: Should treasure hunters be allowed to keep what they find?

Artifacts Belong to Everyone

Many people argue that artifacts recovered from sunken ships belong in museums, not in the hands of treasure hunters. After all, such items offer priceless information about certain periods in history, says archaeologist James Delgado.

Many archaeologists, including Delgado, think sunken treasure should be turned over to experts to be studied and eventually displayed in museums. Delgado points out that some treasure hunters are only after coins, jewels, and other precious objects that can make them rich.

Recovered treasures should be studied, then displayed in museums.

“The value is not in how much money you can sell something for; it’s the value of the stories it can tell,” Delgado says. “It allows us to connect to the people who came before us.”

Delgado and many other archaeologists worry some salvors (people who hunt for sunken ships) might end up damaging or destroying fragile shipwrecks in their search for riches. Important relics, such as bones, may get tossed simply because they’re not considered valuable.

“Focusing on how much you can make is very different [from] how much you can learn,” he says.

Discovery Costs Money

Yet salvors say they deserve to keep at least some of the treasure they find. They point out that they often spend years locating a wreck, which isn’t easy. Ships break apart as they sink to the seafloor, and artifacts get scattered. Over time, the remains get buried in sand.

Pritchett and other salvors spend a lot of money on their expeditions. They often have to buy special equipment to detect buried metal and expensive machines to blow sand off the seafloor to uncover items. Pritchett says he spent about $4 million to find La Trinité. He thinks he should be allowed to keep some of the ship’s artifacts or at least get paid back some of the money he spent finding them.

People who recover lost artifacts deserve a share of what they find.

Experts estimate that less than 1 percent of the world’s shipwrecks have been found and explored. Treasure hunters argue that without their hard work, these pieces of history might be lost forever.

Jason Lundock is an archaeologist who works with Seafarer Exploration, a company that searches for shipwrecks. He says there are ways to compromise. For example, in some cases, treasure hunters are paid a finder’s fee for their discoveries.

Think It Over

Should artifacts from shipwrecks be studied and put in museums for the public to see? Or do the people who locate the wrecks and recover the artifacts deserve to keep some or all of what they find? 

Write About It! Should treasure hunters be allowed to keep what they find? Write an argument that includes details from the article to support your claim.

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