Destroying the Past for Fun and Profit

I have just watched Discovery Channel's new program Treasure Quest. I had recorded the first few episodes on DVR and was planning to catch up in one fell swoop. Instead, after one episode I've deleted the recording and all the saved episodes. I believe this show is best described as greasy.


Treasure Quest left me feeling dirty for having watched it and not at all convinced of the sincerity of the people involved at the Odyssey Exploration company or Discovery. What I thought would be a program about searching for underwater archaeological treasures like the Antikytheran wreck, turned out to be more a bastard offspring of Deadliest Catch and Indiana Jones, with all the excitement cut out. As Zach Zorich of Archaeology Magazine so succintly put it, "Treasure Quest [depicts] scenes of middle-aged men sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping coffee, and cracking lame jokes while the ROV pokes around a couple of wreck sites that had been discovered years earlier."

The show tries hard to reel people in, with exciting music, montages of bleeped profanity, and constant quotations of treasure values. I don't watch archaeology, history, and science programs for drama, so trying to imply drama and suspense seemed unnecessarily forced. The whole package of music and montages comes across as tacky editing, meant to attact people that love the manufactured conflicts of unreality shows like The Biggest Loser and Survivor.

That is not the main fault I found with the show, though. Rather, I was most appalled at the dishonest character of the treasure seekers, the methods used to recover the treasure, and the secrecy involved. Discovery chooses not to highlight any of the glaring problems or controversies surrounding this method of excavating, and I have to believe the omissions are intentional to make the show successful. The practices onboard the Odyssey's ships Explorer and the Finder are disgraceful.

At one point in the first episode, a representative of Odyssey, onboard the Finder, advises the ship's captain to let him know if anyone of authority challenges them, night or day. Shortly thereafter, a French Coast Guard ship radios in to ask their intentions in sailing into French territorial waters. The Odyssey representative lies and says they're avoiding some bad weather and will be sailing back into international waters later that afternoon, when in fact they're trolling with a sidescan sonar looking for new wrecks. The Odyssey dissuades the French from intervening, then orders the Finder's captain to sale in a random zigzag to conceal their true purpose from the French observers. No honest archaeological excavation I've ever seen has lied to governmental authorities in such a way. It belies a low moral character. If hunting for treasure there was legal, what harm would come to them by being honest?

Discovery spends little time discussing the science behind the project. If anyone is mapping the shipwrecks, cataloguing the locations of items before they're collected, making any effort to keep the site's archaeological record intact, it is never mentioned. Rather we see the ROV's arm vaccuuming up coins and bones, seemingly at random. This seems contrary to proper archaeological practice and makes the site worthless at saying anything about the past. Perhaps the correct treatment of the wrecks is being carried out behind the scenes, but I have strong doubts.

Most discouraging of all is the secrecy. I don't believe I've watched a show with so much blurring in all my life. Almost every computer monitor, every piece of paper, every scrap of identifiable information about the locations, the ships, the firms analyzing the data, etc. are concealed. That makes the whole affair seem dishonest. Science and archaeology are done in the open, with findings being shared with everyone. Treasure hunting like this is not archaeology, it's just sucking up the ocean floor for a profit. One of the ships in the first episode, at an area nicknamed Black Swan, contained millions of dollars worth of lead ingots. They found this out by having them tested at a secret lab. What process did they use to find out if the lead was a valuable, low-alpha variety? Which lab was used to do the research, so others could verify it as well? We don't know because that's a carefully guarded secret for some reason. Archaeology and secrecy do not go together. Archaeology could practically be defined as the process of bringing to light that which is hidden and revealing the truth of that which is kept secret.

Mister Zorich's article linked to his name above is far better at describing the problems with this show and with the company involved. I just wanted to express my own impressions. As I said, the Treasure Quest left me feeling dirty. Deceitful, money hungry scavengers are not archaeologists, even if they put a sign on their door to the contrary. If they're going to salvage the seas for profit, they shouldn't make a TV show out of it to glorify their work and try to paint it as something it certainly is not. Discovery should be ashamed of themselves for once again compromising their committment to real science in exchange for ratings.

3 comments:

Mermaid said...

Perhaps you would like to go to http://www.shipwreck.net and read Odyssey Papers 4, which is a 43 page report on the affects of commercial fishing on historic wreck sites, documented by OME while they were out "Destroying the Past for Fun and Profit" as you put it...

T. Zombie said...

I wasn't able to find OME Papers 4, only papers 1 and 2. If you'd care to give me a direct link I'd be happy to read them.

I did see OME's concern about commercial fishing in the one episode of Treasure Quest I watched. They seemed to be upset that a commercial fishing net threatened the secret location of a submarine they'd found.

This is a little like looters of Mayan antiquities being upset because local villagers destroyed valuable artifacts while clear cutting for a farm. Either way valuable history is lost. Just because the looters document how horrible the farmers are doesn't make their own method for displacing the past any better.

Mermaid said...

The link for the OME papers 4 is
http://www.shipwreck.net/pdf/OMEPapers4Final_000.pdf . Hope this helps!