For over 500 year historians have wondered: where in the world is Christopher Columbus' lost ship? The Santa Maria was the largest of three ships to sail across the Atlantic on Columbus' first voyage, but the only one to sink.
In May, a well-known undersea explorer by the name of Barry Clifford announced he may have found the missing ship off the coast of Haiti. It's there that records say the Santa Maria hit reef and met its watery end. But if that turns out to be the case, don't expect to see the Santa Maria's salvaged remains on display in a museum anytime soon. Removing a wreck from the ocean floor – particularly a very old wreck such as this – is often the last thing that archaeologists and historians want to do.
In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a document with the aim of strengthening the protection of so-called underwater cultural heritage sites – environments that have traces of human existence with cultural, historical or archaeological character, and have remained in water for at least 100 years.
As far as wrecks are concerned, "The preservation in situ of underwater cultural heritage shall be considered as the first option before allowing or engaging in any activities directed at this heritage," the document states. The short version is that leaving the ship and its artifacts where they were found – in situ – might actually do more to preserve and conserve the site than raising them from the water. But there are and have been exceptions.
"The principle is that, yes, you can still recover things if they're threatened," says Marc-André Bernier, chief underwater archaeologist for the government agency Parks Canada. "If there is a research question that you can only answer by excavation then it's justified. But the principle is that if it's somewhere, it has a sense in that place, so if you can, you should try to leave it there."
In other words, context is important. And once you excavate a shipwreck, you lose details about its history and fate. "The site or the shipwreck has a story to tell. And when you excavate it's like reading a book, which is the story of a ship. But the pages disappear as you read them," Bernier says. "And if you don't take notes and record everything, you're only relying on your memory."
But leaving a shipwreck in situ can sometimes be just as damaging as recovering the remains.