Finders keepers: an examination of the impact of diver interaction with shipwrecks as revealed by the 1993 amnesty collections.
Despite the fact that much research has been carried out on private collecting behaviour and the theories that underpin this phenomenon, collecting behaviour relating to maritime or shipwreck sites including why and what divers collect has not been the focus of previous research. Private collecting belongs to a world that is incompatible with archaeology and private collections are often difficult to access. As well, the culture surrounding wreck diving and souveniring in Australia prior to the enactment of the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 was such that there was no restrictions on what divers felt they could do to wrecks and what and how much material they removed. As a result, since the 1950s, most wrecks off Australia’s coastline that were known to divers suffered varying degrees of impact from souveniring activities. These included the use of explosives, dredging, tools (hack saw, crowbar, hammer and chisel) to dislodge or loosen material and the removal of complete and incomplete artefacts that were part of vessels’ cargo, armament, superstructure or personal possession of crew and passengers. Consequently, a portion of Australia’s submerged archaeological evidence was lost into private hands, but what proportion, and what material, was unknown. In 1993, a nationwide amnesty was announced to encourage people to declare their historic shipwreck relics for documentation to enhance information on Australia’s maritime history.
This study analysed this largely unrecognised and under-utilised source of evidence from the amnesty collections, in conjunction with responses provided in a written survey sent to those who declared objects, to determine the nature and degree of impact that collecting has had on Australian shipwrecks and to identify patterns in maritime collecting behaviour. These results were also used to explore the applicability of existing theories about collecting behaviour such as the criteria applied to adding objects to collections, the different types of collecting (e.g. collecting tangible objects versus collecting of experiences, and collecting rare or mundane objects driven by different personal motivations), changes in collecting behaviour over time and the fate of private collections since acquisition. Other important outcomes of this study are a detailed and critical analysis of the amnesty process, its effectiveness in bringing to light private collections accumulated since the 1950s, and the legal and practical implications for Australian maritime heritage management, as well as the availability now of two (relational) databases – the amnesty artefact database and the amnesty shipwreck database.