Respect vs. Discovery

When is it okay to recover artifacts of tragedy?
Archaeology is the science that studies people of the past by recovering and analyzing what they’ve left behind.

The story of the discovery of the sunken Titanic raises some interesting archaeological ethics questions. Many people believe that the Titanic wreckage should be considered a gravesite. Artifacts that fell out of the ship as it sank have been recovered from the ocean floor, are studied, and have been put on display. But survivors and families of Titanic survivors maintain that the ship itself, as well as any artifacts contained within it, should not be disturbed.

Likewise, the US Park Service has been very careful in controlling access to the USS Arizona, a battleship sunk in Pearl Harbor at the start of US involvement in World War II. In the months after the Arizona sank, workers recovered all the metal from the ship that projected above the surface of the water. But the site is now considered a military graveyard, and since the initial salvage, divers have only photographed and mapped the ship’s remains. Click here to read the story of the mapping project as told by the lead diver.

USS ArizonaUSS Arizona

On the other hand, most people agree that tombs of an ancient culture—the pyramids of Egypt, for example—should be open to investigation. We use modern scientific techniques to explore and retrieve the artifacts found there—even mummified human bodies.

The great pyramids

And when it comes to shipwreck archeology, some people believe that the inevitable damage to sunken artifacts—through rusting action, water pressure, or predatory animals—increases the urgency to explore and investigate wrecks before they’re gone.

What accounts for this difference?
Does the passage of time change your feelings about what archaeology practices are acceptable for a particular site? How much time must pass before it’s OK to explore an area with human remains? How should we balance respect for lives lost against new knowledge of the past and insight for the future?