Shipwreck!' washes ashore at Science Museum Oklahoma

Scowling pirates strode through the crowd, minding that their scabbards didn't tip over video cameras or smack peoples' shins. Science Museum Oklahoma's president Don Otto bashfully held a sword and a buccaneer cap as he prepared to unveil "Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure."


With the drop of a curtain, music from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" soundtrack boomed from the speakers and reporters and museum donors scrambled into the exhibit, elbowing their way past groups of children to be among the first to work the much-touted mechanical arm of Zeus.

The marine archeology exhibit features artifacts recovered by Odyssey Marine Explorations at several shipwrecks, most notably, the SS Republic which sank off the coast of Georgia in 1865. The ship was carrying a hefty payload of bottles, gold and silver coins, ceramic pipes and inkwells. The most unique samples on display provide a window into the culture that created them.

"Shipwrecks really showed what life was like," said Ellen Gerth, curator of collections for the exploration group. "We have bottles with the contents still intact. Hair tonics, medicines, china. We recovered shoes, combs and toothbrushes, which are obviously very different than what we use today. It tells us a great deal of history."

 In the spirit of the science museum, the exhibit is thoroughly hands-on, with time-consuming attractions such as video games and a booth that blows hurricane-strength winds. Interactive exhibits "? such as a simulator of the remotely operated submergible vehicle, Zeus, a device crucial to Odyssey's recovery and excavation work "? let museum visitors experience from the pilot's seat. Zeus is rated to operate at depths of up to 8,200 feet and has a robotic arm like an advanced version of the mechanical claw seen in arcades.

The museum will be the exhibit's only showing west of the Mississippi River. The SS Republic, whose recovered artifacts are heavily featured in the exhibit, is among a number of the other featured shipwrecks that occurred due to hurricanes and other foul weather. This made for an opening in New Orleans that almost too bizarre to be believed. 

"The exhibit opened two days before Katrina hit, and we obviously had to close within about two hours of our grand opening," Gerth said.

Ironically, the SS Republic met its demise while on its way to New Orleans.

The exhibit eventually reopened in New Orleans before traveling the East Coast, making stops in Tampa, Fla., and Detroit.

Odyssey has ongoing explorations, including future trips to the coast of North Carolina and the English Channel. A TV series on the Discovery Channel is slated for 2009 and the company helps finance expeditions by selling some of the booty discovered at the wrecks.

"We really want to share the adventure, the excitement, the science, the technology, the wealth of information we gained from shipwreck exploration and the marine archeology we collect," Gerth said. "We want to share the wealth of treasure and the history behind these shipwrecks."

Because the wrecks can be anywhere from 1,200 to 3,000 feet below sea level, there are few companies in the world capable of reaching the artifacts, meaning the Odyssey crew doesn't have to compete with many other treasure hunters. The finds can be purchased for a few hundred dollars up to several thousand, depending on the item's rarity and the context of the find. Although Odyssey sells some of the artifacts, Gerth said Odyssey is not a treasure hunting company.

"The concept of a treasure hunter is someone who digs into a shipwreck, finds the treasure and then sells all that treasure, whereas we conduct archeology. We obviously don't run out and start selling everything," Gerth said.

But with large finds, there are bound to be similar artifacts. Odyssey records, photographs and documents every piece, but doesn't necessarily need to store a hundred similar pieces.

"From the SS Republic, we recovered over 6,000 gold and silver coins. We recovered over 6,000 bottles and we will sell some of the artifacts that are redundant," Gerth said. "But we will never sell a one-of-a-kind artifacts."

Those pieces "? such as bottles with food still preserved inside, ornate inkwells or other unique items "? tell a great deal about the society that created them. Gerth's job as curator is to discover what the artifacts say about the people on the ship. She even wrote a book titled "Bottles from the Deep" that goes into the different bottles found aboard the SS Republic.

Garth said the recovered artifacts share valuable insight into past cultures.

"A shipwreck is a time capsule of life," Gerth said. "We've learned some really cool stories about what life was like, what they were doing, what they were eating."

"?Charles Martin

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