Friday, November 19, 2004


Raising haul from richest wreck is an international battle at sea


Ian Johnston

MORE than 300 years ago, the flagship of the Royal Navy set sail on a secret mission to deliver a vast bribe to a wavering ally in the war against France.

But HMS Sussex never arrived, prompting the Duke of Savoy to switch sides in exchange for French gold. A violent storm off the coast of Gibraltar had swamped the ship, which sank with its precious cargo and the loss of all but two of its crew in 3,000ft of water.

However, an American salvage company and a Scottish archaeologist now believe they have found what could be the world’s richest wreck. In the next few weeks they will begin survey work to establish whether it is the Sussex, before beginning a pioneering underwater excavation - the deepest ever attempted - and, they hope, recovering the "million pounds in money" sent by King William in 1694, which could be worth as much as £600 million today.

The plan to raise the Sussex’s gold, which was originally given the code-name Operation Cambridge, has been shrouded in almost as much secrecy as the original mission to prevent anyone plundering the wreck. It has also proved highly controversial, with some archaeologists claiming the salvage company’s unique agreement with the Ministry of Defence, which stands to win a share of the recovered gold, could set a precedent for "the looting of wrecks around the world".

Neil Dobson, a Fife-based freelance archaeologist who, as an expert on deep wrecks, has been brought by the US firm Odyssey Exploration to excavate the site, said working with a commercial salvage company was the only way to fund an archaeological study of the ship and dismissed criticisms that the operation was a "treasure hunt".

"Recovering gold is the same as recovering any other artefact. Odyssey have proven that they are able to recover coins individually, and document and conserve them to the highest numismatic standards," he said.

"To me the ship, its fittings and the belongings of the crew and the officers are the ‘gold’.

Each item will tell us a wonderful story of the past and the people. "A shipwreck is like that of a crime scene, the archaeologist being the detective. Your aim is to understand and reconstruct the past from the clues left.

"The Sussex is a time-capsule of the technology and everyday life in the British Navy of the late 17th century. Any artefacts discovered of the crew, officers and the ship will reflect life and society at the time, from simple tools and possessions of the common sailor to the elegant and expensive possessions of the officers and captain."

The wreck is too deep for human divers and the archaeology will be carried out by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) controlled from the surface and midget submarines. "There is no handbook on deep-water archaeology, Odyssey is writing it. [But] there are no great difficulties in working at such a depth," Mr Dobson said.

"The technology is there from the commercial world, it is just a case of modifying and developing that technology for archaeology. "From my experience you can see more from the ROV than you can from the face plate of a diving helmet. The high-definition cameras and lighting make it possible to see the smallest detail."

The search for the Sussex began in 1995, when an anonymous researcher approached Odyssey with a letter written by a French diplomat or spy who was based in Italy. He wrote to the French government: "The Admiral Ship of England was lost in the storm.

There was on the ship a million piastres, of which 800,000 were for the Duke of Savoy." An entry in the British court records of November 1693 was then found, which said: "A great sum of money is sending hence for Savoy."

Just days before the Sussex sailed, another entry said King William had ordered the exchequer to issue "a million pounds in money for the use of the Fleet". The money was supposed to be used by the Duke of Savoy to hire a mercenary army to fight the French in the Nine Years’ War.

When it failed to materialise, the strategically important Savoy accepted a large bribe from the French king, Louis XIV, and switched sides. The allies, including England, Spain, Sweden and several German states, agreed to a peace treaty which restored "the status quo".

Some archaeologists believe an excavation of the wreck could make history for all the wrong reasons, as it is the first time any government has made such a deal with a commercial salvage company.

The MoD stands to gain a percentage of the gold, depending on how much is retrieved. George Lambrick, a former director of the Council for British Archaeology who has taken a key interest in the Sussex, said: "The salvage company [Odyssey] is clearly trying to be reasonably responsible about it, but the same situation in the hands of less scrupulous people could end up with the looting of wrecks around the world.

The concern is not specifically about this case, it’s the precedent it sets for others, especially cases that may be handled in a much less suitable way.

"The British government, having set what could be a precedent, is giving legitimacy to a principle that’s not widely accepted." Bob Yorke, the chairman of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, which includes the Receiver of Wreck, government officials, divers and archaeologists, said there was a United Nations convention on how wrecks should be treated and any excavation should abide by its principles.

"We’re obviously very interested and in some ways, concerned that any work on the Sussex should be done in line with the annex to the UNESCO convention for the protection of underwater heritage.

Our concern is the conservation of artefacts that should be found." However, he said he had his suspicions about the vessel that had been found by Odyssey and needed concrete proof that it was the Sussex.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?