A person watches a pirate ship sail away.


Buried Treasure: Finders Keepers?

For more than three years, Robert Pritchett and his crew searched the waters off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Finally, in May 2016, Pritchett found what he had been hunting for. It was the shipwreck of a vessel called La Trinité.

The ship had set sail from France more than 450 years earlier. At the time, France had a colony in Florida. The ship was sent to protect that colony. After reaching America, La Trinité sank in a storm in 1565. 

Pritchett found three bronze cannons and other artifacts in the wreckage. But he didn’t get to keep anything. By law, sunken ships belong to the country that sent them—even centuries later.

A Florida court said that the ship belonged to France, not Pritchett. The decision raised an old debate. Should treasure hunters be allowed to keep what they find?

3 million

That’s the estimated number of shipwrecks spread across the world’s oceans. 

Source: UNESCO

Many experts argue that shipwrecks and their artifacts belong in museums, not in the collections of treasure hunters. After all, such items hold information that can help us understand history, says archaeologist James Delgado.

Archaeologists like Delgado think sunken treasure should be turned over to them so they can study the artifacts. Many say that treasure hunters are just after coins or jewels that they can sell to become rich.

“The value is not in how much money you can sell something for, it’s the value of the stories it can tell,” Delgado says. “It allows us to connect to the people who came before us.”

Some archaeologists worry that treasure hunters might destroy old shipwrecks. Delgado says that important relics, like bones, get tossed away because they’re not considered valuable by the treasure hunters.

“Focusing on how much you can make is very different than how much you can learn,” Delgado says.

About 250,000

That many artifacts from one wreck were destroyed in 2004. Treasure hunters didn’t think they were valuable.

Source: UNESCO

People who hunt for sunken ships say they deserve to keep some of the treasure they find. They point out that they spend years locating a wreck, which isn’t easy. Ships break apart as they sink to the seafloor, and remains get buried in sand.

Pritchett and other hunters also spend a lot of money on their missions. They use special technology to find buried metal and to blow sand off the seafloor to uncover items. Pritchett says he spent about $4 million to find La Trinité. He thinks he should be allowed to keep some artifacts or at least get paid for them.

Experts estimate that less than 1 percent of the world’s wrecks have been explored. Treasure hunters argue that if they didn’t look for the wrecks, these pieces of history might be lost forever.

Jason Lundock is an archaeologist. He works with a company that searches for wrecks. He thinks there are ways to compromise. For example, treasure hunters in some countries are paid a finder’s fee for their discoveries.

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1. Why didn’t Robert Pritchett and his crew get to keep the treasures they found?

2. Which details support the idea that treasure hunters should get to keep treasures they find?

3. Summarize the point of view of James Delgado.

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