Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes Coins in the hands of a conservator © Spanish Ministry of Culture

Modern equipment and technological tools facilitate underwater archaeology, but allow also for treasure hunting. Extensive pillage is now also taking place under water. Even sites located deep in the ocean have already been subject to unethical artefact recovery.

Pillage is the theft of historical artefacts from a heritage site in violation of the law and without authorization. It is unfortunately a common phenomenon when it comes to ancient shipwrecks or underwater artefact deposits.

Diverse communities can be involved, ranging from occasional and opportunistic souvenir hunting by sport divers to specialized treasure-hunt enterprises. Pillage also often desecrates the grave sites common to ship wrecks.

The 2001 Convention provides for strong measures, preventing the pillaging of underwater cultural heritage. They range from direct site protection measures to the interdiction of trafficking pillaged artefacts, port closure, seizure, sanctioning and international cooperation in the investigation and pursuit. 

Every State, seeking to protect its underwater heritage from pillage has an interest to ratify the Convention.

Some recent pillage cases:

The Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes Wreck, Spain: The Mercedes had more than 200 people aboard when it sank in 1804 in a naval battle, triggering war for Spain. A Florida-based treasure-hunt firm found the shipwreck off the Strait of Gibraltar in 2007 and pillaged it. A court battle ensued before the US courts ruled in 2012 that the firm had no claim to the artifacts and had to return the almost 600,000 gold and silver (17 tons) coins to Spain.

Mir Zakah Coin Find, Afghanistan: Between 1992 and 1995 one of the largest deposits of coins known in the history of currencies was discovered at the bottom of a well in Mir Zakah, located in Pakhtia province of Afghanistan. Torrential rains had caused the well to overflow. The coin deposit seems to have contained more than four tons of minted metal, near 550,000 coins of mostly silver and bronze and 350 kilograms of gold. It was pillaged and exported. The find’s special importance lies in the information it gives on Bactrian kings and in a depiction of Alexandre the Great on a medal. 

Jutland Battle Wrecks (WWI), International Waters: The World War I Jutland wreck sites have been commercially exploited by pillagers, who recovered metal and artefacts, despite disturbing war graves. Recent archaeological research of 22 Jutland battle wrecks of World War I has shown that there is evidence of pillage on at least 60% of the sites, some of it historic, but some recent, as on the HMS Queen Mary. The Jutland wrecks, British and German, are a significant reminder of the importance of peace.

Corsica Hoard/Lava Treasure, France: In October 2010 France seized third century A.D. Roman gold coins as well as an ancient gold plate with a pedigree linking the material to the Lava Treasure. The Lava Treasure, consisting primarily of ancient Roman gold materials, received its name because the find was discovered accidentally by locals diving in the Gulf of Lava Corsica about 25 years ago. It was soon pillaged. A close monitoring of the numismatic and art market finally allowed to discover the trace of the stolen treasure and to seize it even while such a long time after the pillage had gone by.

Sao Idefonso Wreck, Madagascar: Sailing under Portuguese flag, the Sao Idefonso sank in 1527 south of the island of Madagascar on the Etoile reef. A research mission attested to the presence of the wreck on the site, and observed many artefacts, copper ingots and guns. Privileged witnesses of the first Portuguese explorations to the Indian Ocean, the Sao Idefonso and its submerged cargo were however soon looted by locals. Nothing remains of the wreck in situ.

Yucatan Skeleton, Mexico: A particularly important ancient skeleton disappeared in 2012 from a cenote (a flooded carst cave) in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Dubbed Young Hol Chan II, the 10,000-year-old skeleton was discovered in 2010 at the same site that in 2006 had previously yielded another 10,000-year-old skeleton, the Young Man of Chan Hol. The skeleton is important because investigations into the 2006 find, the Young Man of Chan Hol, suggested a shared lineage with Indonesians and south Asians. This is a contrast from the common hypothesis that the earliest people to colonize the North and South America migrated from Asia to North America across a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska.


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