This composite image, made from sonar and more than 100,000 photos taken in 2010 from by unmanned, underwater robots, shows a small portion of the Titanic debris field.
The May / June 2012 issue of Archaeology Today, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, marks the centennial anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking by focusing on “what it was always meant to be: an archaeological site.” When scientists finally discovered the wreck in 1985, using an unmanned deep-sea vessel called Argo, they certainly didn’t expect to find the Titanic in pristine condition. But, they also didn’t expect to learn that it had become a haven for marine life.
Two miles down, with water pressurized to 6,000 pounds per square inch, the remnants of the Titanic metamorphosed into a “series of reefs in what had once been a deep-sea desert.” Plunging to such depths had been the stuff of ambitious dreams and adventurous souls. But, even by the 1980’s, when technology allowed those dreams to become reality, no one really knew what to expect. Humans first visited the site in 1986, peering out the peep holes of another deep-sea submersible, Alvin. The year after that, another vessel, Nautile, glided over the site. Scientists were stunned to find bottles of wine, dishes, clothing, wallets and other items scattered along the ocean bottom near the wreck, where oxygen doesn’t reach. With its robotic arm, Nautile picked up the first of 1,800 artifacts it would recover during that expedition.
In 2010 two robotic vehicles crisscrossed the seabed, using high-resolution sonar and camera systems to create the first comprehensive map of the Titanic site. Another robot, at the end of a fiber-optic cable, sent to the surface live, full-color, 3-D images, allowing scientists to virtually walk the decks of the ship. This latest effort is perhaps the most significant advance since underwater archaeology began just 50 years ago. For the first time, Titanic can be treated and explored like any other underwater site; extreme depths are no longer an obstacle.
The first steps in expanding underwater archaeology to the depths were propelled by the Titanic disaster itself, as the first sonar systems were developed and tested after the sinking to locate and avoid icebergs. This technology improved throughout the 20th century, moving into deeper waters, until Titanic’s discovery. But even in 1985, the idea that Titanic could be explored, photographed and mapped like an archaeological site seemed like science fiction.
The artifacts salvaged since 1987 represent less than 1% of what might be available. The furor over the recovery of artifacts from Titanic has been long and arduous. The greater concerns for archaeology are how and why the artifacts were removed, and what would become of them. Were they being appropriately conserved, cataloged, and researched? Would they ultimately go to auction?
The U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia has overseen the salvage company’s activities under admiralty law for two decades and has answered a number of these questions. Rulings by the court have limited recovery to artifacts scattered outside the intact bow and stern sections. At one stage, RMS Titanic Inc. unsuccessfully sued the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce to stop publication of the International Agreement on Titanic guidelines. Most recently the court awarded RMS Titanic Inc. title to the 5,000 artifacts, with the stipulation that the company follow international standards for conservation, treatment and display of the collection. Furthermore, any sale of the artifacts would be subject to review by the court, and allowed only if the collection stays together and is maintained for public display and study.
Debate surely will continue over Titanic’s remnants, but one thing is certain: it is one of the most horrific maritime disasters in recent memory. People have an almost macabre fascination with it. Yet, we can’t forget the human aspect of that tragedy. The hopes and dreams of many people aboard the vessel vanished into the cold dark waters of the North Atlantic. The ship is their collective graveyard. We can dredge up cutlery and even paper documents from the muddy depths. But, we can’t bring the more than 1,500 souls who perished along with them. They were important, too, and they should be respected.