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Who Owns the Titanic?

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Image Credit: Premier Exhibitions

30 years ago, a crew of American and French researchers led by oceanographer Robert Ballard reported some astonishing news: 73 years after hitting an iceberg, the R.M.S. Titanic had been found in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Almost immediately, questions regarding who had the right to dive to depths of over 12,000 feet and retrieve artifacts—or even the ship itself—were the subject of public, ethical, and legal debate. Could anyone actually own the remains of the most infamous ocean liner in history?

The ship’s original owner, White Star Line, had evaporated, bought out by rival Cunard; insurance companies covering both the ship and freight had an unknown number of underwriters. The paper trail was so pockmarked by the time of the 1985 discovery that it would’ve been difficult for any one of them to make any substantial claim. And even if they could, the challenge was making a case that would trump admiralty law, which specifies that a sunken vessel located in international waters belongs to no one.

“Any financial records and the actual certificates of insurance are now lost,” says Paul Louden-Brown, a maritime historian and a former vice-president of the Titanic Historical Society. “It would be expensive to pursue a legal claim...particularly through the U.S. court system and any positive financial outcome is questionable.”

Naturally, not everyone agreed with that assessment.

In the 1980s and 1990s, several entities challenged the newly formed RMS Titanic, Inc., which had been recognized in court as being the salvor-in-possession after a 1987 dive in tandem with the French research team that had helped Ballard. (It didn’t give them ownership of the ship itself, but they had exclusive American rights to any artifacts retrieved during a dive.) A company named Marex said the ship had been abandoned by RMS (previously known as Titanic Ventures) because they had waited too long to return; another company fought to charge “tourists” $32,500 to visit the wreck in a submersible; insurer Liverpool and London, who had paid out on some passenger policies, pursued RMS in court before settling.

It took years, but RMS successfully fought off their remaining challengers and recovered thousands of items during dives performed from 1987 to 2004. Bags that had been recovered were opened by Telly Savalas during a live television special. (They contained some coins, jewelry and Italian lire.) In 1998, RMS was able to successfully raise a portion of the ship’s hull that weighed 15 tons. For a time, it was part of a Titanic exhibition at the Luxor in Las Vegas.

RMS has brought up over 5,000 artifacts but must continually display efforts to visit the wreck in order to maintain salvage rights. According to Louden-Brown, their jurisdiction applies only to dives in the United States. “There is nothing to prevent a company based in the UK or any other country from diving and recovering material from the vessel,” he says. “If the items recovered were landed in a U.S. port, then they would be seized and possibly the diving vessel impounded. So any operations would have to begin and end in a country other than the U.S.”

So who owns the Titanic? Right now, no one. If someone figured out a way to raise 66,000 tons without destroying what remains of the ship, they’d likely be able to claim it—until the inevitable legal challenges came their way. Personal effects and other items are yours for the taking providing you dive for them without entering the U.S. and don’t mind some harsh criticism. The act of retrieving artifacts has been perceived by some as disturbing the water-logged memorial of the more than 1,500 lives lost.

When Ballard returned to the site in 1986, his expedition placed a plaque on the ship’s stern to honor the dead. Like most everything else, it was eventually removed.

Additional Sources:

Titanic in the Courts,” Archaeology, January/February 2001.    

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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9.7-Million-Year-Old Teeth Discovered in Germany Have Scientists Puzzled
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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images

Scientists in Germany say they've found ape teeth that are surprisingly similar to the teeth of an early human relative dating to millions of years later. As the Independent reports, the team of experts unearthed a pair of 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth that, they say, have some of the same features as the teeth of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Mainz found the fossils a year ago in nearby Eppelsheim but have waited until now to publish their findings—partly because they weren't sure what to make of the puzzling discovery. Of the two teeth, a canine and a molar, the canine tooth bears a striking resemble to that from "Lucy," one of the first known ancient human relatives to walk upright, who lived in Africa some 3.2 million years ago.

"They are clearly ape teeth," researcher Herbert Lutz told local media in a press conference. "Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim. This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery."

They dated the fossils using the remains of an extinct horse which was found buried in the same spot. In their paper, the scientists describe the canine’s similarities to other remains found in the lower half of the globe, but they still don't have answers to many of the questions the report raises. They plan to continue examining the teeth for clues. The public will also have a chance to see the teeth for themselves, first at a state exhibition this month, and then at Mainz's Natural History Museum.

[h/t Independent]

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell


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