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What is a "Treasure Hunter"?

Imagine that you walked into a lab full of bunsen burners and test tubes and dozens of different experiments going on all around you. The lab is empty, there's an open door to the hallway, and no-one is there but you. Thinking that a particular test tube is interesting, or a flask is bizarrely shaped, or that this type of burner is extremely rare, you start filling a sack with whatever you find. In a cabinet is a collection of slides and other reference data, so you rip open the cabinet, smash the glass and take those, too.  Happy with the knowledge that you've got a sack full of shiny objects that appeal to you, you stroll into the hallway and go home to put them on a shelf or sell them on eBay.

Later, a biochemist that has been trying to find out where the lab was wanders in and sees the vandalized equipment, the destroyed cabinet and all the experiments that are now rendered almost completely useless.

  This is Treasure Hunting!!!

Obviously, the lab is a crappy metaphor for an underwater site full of artifacts, and the guy with the sack ripping apart everything he finds interesting is the Treasure Hunter.

Everything on a dig-site is precious.

The smallest detail or fragment can sometimes be the crucial clue to solving the puzzle. Even more important is knowing the context, or, where that piece came from. When a vessel decays, items fall to the sea floor and become covered with sediment. Only by careful and precise evaluation of these items and their locations can we accurately determine where they originally were placed. This may not sound all that difficult to figure out at first. I mean, if you find a lug nut, and you find a 1976 MGB Midget five feet away, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where the lug nut is going to fit. However, you put that car & lug nut underwater for four hundred years and then come across it as a human being that has never seen something as antique as a car before, then you've got some problems. The bolt threads would have long ago been rusted away, the nut itself would be encrusted and virtually unidentifiable without being cleaned in the lab first, and it would be safe to bet that no living soul in the year 2397 would have ever owned a 1976 MGB Midget. Besides, speaking as a person who once owned a 1976 MGB Midget, the parts never fit quite right in the first place. So as you can see, it's an uphill battle all the way for Nautical Archaeologists to reconstruct the unknown.

"Okay", you say, "It's tough. Why bother?"
We bother because there is so much about our origins as human beings that we don't even know about. Common place technologies and practices that were prevalent in the year 800 AD that are now unknown to us can be understood by studying the remains of those times.

"But why underwater? I thought you archeologist-types just dug up bones in Peru or something."
On land, we are able to excavate finds that lay under the earth for untold centuries, but all too often, these sites have been disturbed, looted, or destroyed beyond any real use. Under the sea, however, sites have remained out of reach of humankind, and therefore virtually undisturbed since they were laid to rest.

"But what's the harm in bringing up stuff if I let you look at it afterwards?"
If you brought my ancestor that lug nut from the MGB, we may never know for sure where it came from, what it came from, or why it was made in the first place. If you bring me a gold coin you sucked out of the silt with a blower, I will never be able to discern what ship it came from, what type of ship, what nationality, how that ship was built (they weren't all the same back then), or evaluate any of the thousands of artifacts you may have accidentally blown away in the current.

The lure is very attractive. I grew up watching pirate movies and Johnny Quest cartoons where every third or fourth episode Johnny would come across buried or sunken treasure. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a land Archaeologist who doesn't like Indiana Jones movies, either. I too have the desire to see what a chest full of gold looks like, but not enough to irrevocably destroy what might be the only existing site of it's kind in the entire world just to see it. I would much rather follow the proper methods of Archaeology and find out all I can from the wreck, and then bring up that chest of gold. It's been down there for hundreds of years. A little while longer isn't going to make much difference.

"So you mean no-one without a PhD should be allowed to bring home souvenirs of SCUBA trips?"

That is definitely not what I mean!

I love SCUBA diving and encourage it in everyone I meet. I do however think that you should take a class to find out what is and is not important to Archaeologists so that you don't take something that is important. And in return, by taking these classes you can not only learn more about what you're finding, but also be certified to volunteer on real dig-sites. Volunteers are needed on sites around the world to help gather data and catalogue artifacts.

To find an Archeological group in your area, Click Here

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