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BOSTON — If all goes as planned, a nine-ton slab of hull from the R.M.S. Titanic will soon see sunlight for the first time in 84 years.
The multimillion dollar effort caps a nearly month-long expedition to survey and return artifacts from the wreck, which lies beneath 12,600 feet of frigid water.
Yet the expedition has rekindled a debate as intense as any North Atlantic storm over the ethics of salvaging material from historic sunken vessels.
To some, the mission represents the worst in "Indiana Jones archaeology" - disturbing wrecks in the pursuit of cannon balls and crucifixes for profit. It runs counter to the ethic of preserving sites for ongoing research. To others, it's a viable way to finance research in an era of scarce government and academic funds.
The New York-based R.M.S. Titanic Inc., a private firm that owns the salvage rights to the ship, has pulled together an international team of naval architects, a marine biologist, and other specialists to attempt a recovery worthy of a Clive Cussler novel.
The team plans to attach 10 immense salvage bags, weighted and filled with diesel fuel, to the hull section. On a remote command, the weights will fall off, allowing the bagged fuel, which is less dense than water, to lift the section to the surface.
Company spokeswoman Alexandra Foley says the hull section will anchor an exhibition of the company's Titanic artifacts next spring. The also firm hopes to establish a museum dedicated to the Titanic and the 1,500 passengers and crew who perished.
To help in the quest for artifacts, the expedition is using the manned submersible Nautile operated by the French Institute of Research and Exploration of the Sea. In addition, the team is deploying sonar devices to map the debris field around the wreck and hopes sonar imaging will reveal the precise nature of the damage to the Titanic's bow, buried deep in the sea floor's mud.
Yet from museum directors and nautical archaeologists to the Titanic Historical Society, critics of the company's decade-long effort to recover material from the Titanic have called the work everything from grave robbing to what Ricardo Elia, associate professor of archaeology at Boston University calls "the crass commercialization of history."
A $7,000 cruise
To cover the cost of the expedition, for example, R.M.S. Titanic Inc. has organized cruises to the site, with tickets ranging from $1,500 to $7,000. The Discovery Channel reportedly has paid $3 million for the documentary rights, and individual lumps of coal in miniature display cases are selling for $25 a piece.
The objections largely stem from a clash of cultures and interests. For historians and archaeologists, the clearest insights from a "dig" come when artifacts can be documented in as close to their original setting as possible and if the final collections remain intact for further study. Such painstaking work can mean several season's worth of dives and years in restoration labs.
Moreover, during the past 20 years, many archaeologists have started to limit what they excavate or bring to the surface. Regarding sites as nonrenewable cultural resources, a growing number of researchers now leave potential sites alone unless they are in danger of destruction.
"The questions you have to ask are: What is the site's condition? What are the immediate threats to a site? And what is the value of the site to archaeologists, historians, and the public?" Dr. Elia says. He adds that so much is known about the Titanic that retrieving large quantities of items from the wreck is of little or no historical value. Nor has anyone demonstrated an immediate threat to the site. And while he acknowledges the public's interest in the Titanic, he notes that R.M.S. Titanic Inc. has pulled some 4,000 relics from the wreck and asks, "How many teacups and eyeglasses do you need?"
This evolving ethic of "conservation archaeology" stems from what researchers see as a well-founded fear that many private salvagers are out to get top dollar from museum curators or individual collectors who may care less about keeping a collection intact than about owning the most brilliant bauble. It's an Indiana Jones image that even professional archaeologists are still trying to shed, after more than a century of taking a similar approach.
Private expeditions must also repay investors in the venture, prompting them to go for the gold as quickly as possible.
In 1986, President Reagan signed a bill to initiate talks with other countries to establish the Titanic site as an international memorial. The law included a "sense of Congress" provision that no salvaging should take place until such a designation and rules on extracting artifacts were established. But, says an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that provision has no teeth. And international negotiations have been sporadic and inconclusive.
Absent such legal protections, sites will be increasingly open to exploitation as deep-sea recovery technologies become more accessible, says Ken Vrana, director of the Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management at Michigan State University.
Concerns about salvagers wreaking havoc on important wrecks can only be handled by closer cooperation between academics and the private sector, he says. Noting an example where a private company brought science and profit together in retrieving and leaving intact a collection of artifacts from a Spanish galleon off Saipan, he adds, "We've got to begin viewing these sites as multiple-use sites, not simply as archaeological sites."