Saturday, June 11, 2016

6/11/16 Report - Silver Spoon from 1715 Fleet Shipwreck. Who Owns the Past?

Written by the TreasureGuide for the exclusive use of

Bill Showing Freshly Discovered Silver Spoon.
Photo submitted By Captain Jonah M.

In an email containing the above picture, Captain Jonah said, Today Capitana boys recovered a beautiful silver spoon along with some other nice pieces. Including pottery ,musket balls ,a bunch of encrusted objects. More pics coming soon.

I just received another picture of the spoon and another nice artifact from Dan B. of the Capitana crew. I'll have that for you tomorrow or sometime soon.


Who owns the past?  That is actually the title of a book and the subject of several more books, articles, classes and lectures.  

There are three basic views.  One is that the past is owned by humanity.  That is the view held by many archaeologists.   But they seem to see themselves as the only suitable trustees, and often, instead of making the past, as represented by the artifacts they collect and study, widely available to the public, they make them very inaccessible.  Take, for example, the coins in the Florida Collection.   The public is viewed with suspicion and certainly not qualified to interpret the past.  The public is not seen as trustworthy enough to own, touch or manage the past.  To me it seems very dishonest to say that history is owned by humanity and is being preserved for the people, when the people have such limited access.

The second common view is that the past is owned by the descendants of those who created it.  For example, artifacts created by Native Americans are thought to belong to the tribes that created them. This view presents several problems.  First, it is very often not possible to precisely determine who those rightful descendants are.  Very often some group jumps in and claims artifacts when it is very doubtful that they are the descendants of the group that created the artifacts.

The silver cobs that Odyssey Marine salvaged and had to give to Spain a couple of years ago is a good example.  The cobs were on a Spanish ship headed back to Spain, but couldn't you just as well say that those cobs belonged to Peru, where the silver was mined by native laborers?  If you believe Spain gained that silver unrightfully (theft),  would the silver not belong to Peru?  I believe that Peru did make a claim on those silver coins, but unsuccessfully.   But can the modern state of Peru represent the native groups anyhow?  Now it is believed that some of those so-called native groups arrived by sea travel from the Orient.  (There was also a recent report showing that mummies from before the time of Columbus showed signs of tuberculosis, which was previously thought to have been one of the many scourges brought by the explorers.)  To me, it is not all that simple to determine the originating group or culture.  In reality, things are too complex.

The final perspective on ownership of the past holds is that artifacts may be privately owned.  We know what that means.  As I said yesterday, I am glad that so many of our treasure coins and artifacts are in private hands because of the access we have to the information and images, much of which has been posted on the internet.  The internet and other technologies has given us access to a lot of information as items change hands in public auctions or through online retail sites, not to mention the web sites provided by private individuals to display and discuss their finds and collections.

If information and images, including possibly the data for 3-D printing and reproduction, is made available on the internet, the public may not own the physical item, but they will own something almost as good - the knowledge and information the item provides and the history it represents.

Ownership (control) of the physical item is not as important as it once was.  Technological innovation will only accelerate that trend.

Yes, there needs to be more scientific analysis than what individual collectors can do at home.  No problem.  Get to it, and publish the results so the public can see it.

If the images and information are provided to the public, the science will advance much faster.  The public is not stupid.  It has and will contribute tremendously if it is allowed access.  A cloud of eyes and brains will lead to many advances.

This is one of those topics that would take much longer to cover well.  Nonetheless, I'll cut it off there for now.

In my next post,  I'll post more finds and shipwreck news.

Happy hunting,