In the 23 years since divers first reached the wreckage of the Titanic, commercial efforts to salvage artifacts from the doomed ocean liner have aroused as much scientific dispute as public curiosity.
Many archaeologists and others — including Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who led an American-French team that discovered the remains 25 years ago — wanted the site left untouched as a memorial. Some of them compared salvage efforts to grave robbing.
Now, R.M.S. Titanic, the American company that has removed about 4,650 artifacts from the Titanic, will try to mend fences with the scientific community by sponsoring two voyages, the first of which sets sail on Sunday from St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Instead of stripping the wreckage, these trips will include archeologists who will carefully document and map the site for the first time as a step toward creating a long-term archaeological management plan for it.
“This is a very different approach for my company,” said Chris Davino, the president of Premier Exhibitions, the parent firm of R.M.S. Titanic. “There was some skepticism among a number of groups given the record Premier and R.M.S. Titanic have had with the broad archaeological community. And that skepticism was warranted.”
Other than a few samples from the hull that researchers will use to study the bacteria that are slowly consuming the ocean liner, nothing will be removed from the wreckage, which sits about 2.5 miles below the sea. Instead, the research group plans to carefully document the area, hoping that precise measurements will create a baseline for calculating the rate at which is it succumbing to the bacterial feasting.
While images of the wreckage on the ocean floor have become common over the past two decades, David Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole, said that beyond the stern and bow much of it remains unrecorded.
“In fact, only about 40 percent of the site has been looked at,” Mr. Gallo said by telephone while traveling to Newfoundland on Friday. “Some of the images that stick in most people’s minds are not real photographs but paintings.”
Advances in digital photography, sonar and computer imaging software over the last two decades will obviously aid the documentation. But P. H. Nargeolet, director of Underwater Research for R.M.S. Titanic, said that improvements in robotic submarines would be the single most important factor.
Those submarines, which carry two different kinds of high resolution sonar, have guidance systems that enable them to precisely trace a detailed grid measuring about two by three miles, Mr. Nargeolet said. Software can then convert that into a 3-D, digital map of the wreckage.
Using that map for guidance, cameras on other submarines will then take about 80,000 photographs. Finally, those images will be digitally pasted onto the sonar map to create a 3-D photo.
Mr. Nargeolet acknowledged that the imaging would show damage not only from the sinking but also from earlier salvage trips (including the floating of a 15-ton portion of the hull in 1998). Some critics of his company have said that the salvage efforts have also left the site littered with debris.
The voyage was prompted by a change of management at R.M.S. Titanic, which has been arguing in court for 17 years to be granted ownership of the artifacts it collected after 1987 or to be compensated for salvaging them. Rather than battle the archaeologists, the company’s new management met with a group of them over a year ago and learned that carefully mapping the wreckage site was the scientific community’s priority.
“A lot of decisions in the past have been decided by a court saying you need to go and pick up things in order to maintain sovereign possession,” said James P. Delgado, the president and chief executive of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, a former critic of the company whose group is participating in this trip. “The level of intervention in the site in the future needs to be dictated by hard science.”
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