PILR Guest Blog: Human Effects or Human Remains: Delineating Personal Boundaries at the RMS Titanic Wreck Site

Written by Peter Hershey

In 2003, representatives from the United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom formed the Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic, a multi-lateral agreement calling for State parties to “take all reasonable measures to ensure that all artifacts . . . are conserved and curated consistent with” certain enumerated archeological and scientific methodologies, among other requirements. Artifacts, under the Agreement, are defined to include “the cargo of RMS Titanic and other contents, including those associated objects that are scattered in its vicinity and any portion of the hull.” Artifacts are to be preserved in situ—i.e., at the wreck site—unless their disturbance or removal is “justified by educational, scientific, or cultural interests.”

Human remains, under the Agreement, receive many of the same considerations and protections as artifacts; for example, human remains are to be preserved in situ such that the wreck stands as “a memorial to those men, women and children who perished.” Accordingly, the Agreement calls for State parties to ensure that “[a]ctivities [directed at, or in the vicinity of, the wreck site] shall avoid disturbance of human remains.” The Agreement, however, also provides that those undertaking activities with a likelihood of encountering human remains should take care to give the remains “appropriate respect.” Though the Agreement does not explain how such respect can, or should, be accorded, it is clear that the respect requirement does not extend to other types of artifacts.

The differential treatment between artifacts, on one hand, and human remains, on the other, raises an interesting question: What constitutes a human remain? Merely flesh and bone? What about a boot or a hat or some other clothing garment worn by the person at the time they perished? What about a wedding ring? Dentures? Cavity fillings? Other items of a highly personal nature? The Agreement does not define the constitution of human remains, and, thus, provides no answers. Likewise, neither the proposed legislation to implement the international agreement nor the guidelines as to the research, exploration, and salvage of the Titanic set forth a cognizable definition of human remains. What do you think? Should human remains constitute merely flesh and bone, or should “appropriate respect” also be rendered to certain items of a highly personal nature found at the wreck site?


Peter Hershey graduated from the William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law (J.D., 2011) and the College of William and Mary in Virginia (B.A., 2008). He currently serves as a senior law clerk for the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He enjoys researching and writing about legal issues involving underwater cultural heritage and the law of the sea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *