Voices From The Deep

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Voices From The Deep, The Undertow Press, £25 + P&P

£20 if ordered before the end of February 2018 (includes P&P); £25 to USA/ROW

Contact Sean Kingsley directly or orders to: undertowpressuk@gmail.com

Cheques to: Maritime Heritage Foundation, Suite 7, 46 Eversholt Street, London, NW1 1DA


The Battle of the Atlantic was raging when the SS Gairsoppa, a British India steamer, left Calcutta in December 1940 carrying goods for London desperately needed for the war effort. Alongside was a secret cargo of three million ounces of silver. Three days from home a German submarine struck. The Gairsoppa sank fast southwest of Ireland. After 70 years her remains were discovered 4,700 metres beneath the waves.

From deep in the hold 700 letters were recovered. The largest collection of lost mail from any shipwreck worldwide gives voice to the daily lives, fears and dreams of British soldiers, officers’ wives, businessmen and missionaries writing home to loved ones in England, Scotland and America as Christmas 1940 approached. Their words are a remarkable echo of World War II India and Britain from the frontline to the fireplace.

Voices From The Deep tells the story of British India, the Gairsoppa and the convoy war using the wreck’s wide-ranging finds. The cargo included tea and iron, while the small finds – tea and coffee pots, beer, medicine and liquor bottles, cups, coins, shoes and newspapers – are a vivid snapshot of life at sea for Britain’s merchant marine.

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Spanish Pottery from the Tortugas Shipwreck, 1622

Oceans Odyssey 4Oceans Odyssey 4 presents a major collection of olive jars, tablewares, cooking vessels and tobacco pipes excavated from the Tortugas shipwreck at a depth of 405 meters in the Straits of Florida. The Spanish ship’s Seville dominated pottery dated to 1622 is an index of unchanged cultural tastes and production at the end of Spain’s Golden Age. For cooking the crew relied on Afro-Caribbean colonoware, possible evidence of maritime slavery in the Americas fleets. Tin-glazed plates painted with the papal coat of arms may have served Spanish clergymen from the newly formed Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith. The Andalusian olive jars are compared to Roman Baetican amphoras as microcosms of distinct economics. Samples of all ceramics were subjected to Inductively-Coupled Plasma Spectrometry (ICPS) to assess vessel origins.

Greg Stemm, Sean Kingsley & Ellen Gerth (eds.), Oceans Odyssey 4. Pottery from the Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2014).

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Black Rats & Spanish Pearls: The Tortugas Shipwreck, History’s First Deep-Sea Excavation

Port of Seville c. 1590 by Alonso Sanchez Coello

Port of Seville c. 1590 by Alonso Sanchez Coello

After 1,489 hours of robotic diving and 20 years of research, the results of the world’s first ever deep-sea excavation have docked with the publication of Oceans Odyssey 3. The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2013).

The Tortugas wreck was found by Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology of Tampa, Florida, in 1989 at a depth of 405m in the Straits of Florida, south of the Dry Tortugas, the southernmost islands of the Florida Keys. Too deep for divers, the exact positions of 16,903 artefacts were recorded and all recovered by the Remotely-Operated Vehicle Merlin, custom-built for the project.

Tortugas Wreck - ROV Merlin

Tortugas Wreck – ROV Merlin. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

These ground-breaking operations ushered in the birth of a new discipline, deep-sea shipwreck archaeology, for which the core tools of the trade were fine-tuned to enable accurate surveying using a Sonardyne acoustic long baseline positioning system, stratigraphic excavation using a customised suction dredge with integrated sediment removal and filtration (SeRF) system (prototyped from a beer keg), heavy duty lifting with two advanced Schilling manipulators, and delicate artefact recovery based on a limpet suction device innovation. All underwater activities were fully documented by video camera and three still photography cameras.

Limpet suction device recovers an olive jar

Limpet suction device recovers an olive jar. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

The lost ship has been identified as the Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a 117-ton Portuguese-built and Spanish-operated navio owned by Juan de la Torre Ayala. Sailing with the infamous 1622 Tierra Firme fleet returning home to Seville, the Buen Jesús plummeted into the deep 20km offshore in the ferocious hurricane of 5 October that consumed eight ships, including the Atocha and Margarita, sweeping their remains across more than 80km of the Florida Keys. Around 550 people, including 121 priests, drowned. The gold, silver, pearls, indigo, cochineal, tobacco and other products lost on all eight ships were valued at 4,000,000 pesos. The fleet’s loss was a fatal blow for debt-consumed Madrid, suffering 300% inflation since the turn of the 17th century, and its fading Golden Age.

Monitoring ROV work, Tortugas wreck

Monitoring ROV work, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Unlike the rest of the fleet, journey’s end for the Tortugas ship was Nueva Cordoba (Cumana) on the Costa de las Perlas in modern Venezuela. A daredevil itinerary took the Buen Jesús to the edge of the Spanish colonies, waters teeming with Dutch and English privateers, for three reasons: pearls, possibly contraband, tobacco and as a sign of Spanish colonial power over the Peal Coast, which had become heavily eroded by the early 17th-century by the Dutch assault on the region’s abundant salt reserves.

As a small merchant vessel operating at the opposite spectrum to the great Tierra Firme treasure ships the Atocha and Margarita celebrated off the Florida Keys, the Tortugas shipwreck ultimately provides a rare window into the everyday world of colonial Spain’s trade with the New World at the end of its Golden Age.

4-Plex with artefacts safely recovered from 405m deep. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

4-Plex with artefacts safely recovered from 405m deep. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

While the 39 gold bars and 1,184 silver coins represent in part profits from the outwards-shipped sale along the Pearl Coast of wine, olives, hazelnuts, iron goods, women’s shoes and a tapestry depicting the Souls of Purgatory, the 6,639 pearls harvested from the Pinctada imbricate oyster beds are split symbols of luxury and brutality. At the one extreme pearls were Europe’s hottest fashion accessory. Symbolising purity, integrity and wisdom, Venezuelan gems like those shipped on the Buen Jesús featured in resplendent paintings of the period, such as the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1588, by George Gower) and were coveted by King Philip II, Queen Margarita and Lucrezia Borgia alike. Venezueala’s pearls were fished from the seas under extremely harsh conditions for man and nature: 60,000 divers from the Bahamas, followed by tens of thousands of imported African slaves, were wiped out in what is considered to be the earliest recorded example by Europeans of species overkill causing ecological collapse.

Pottery, astrolabes & gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Pottery, astrolabes & gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

At the other end of the spectrum, the Tortugas wreck turned up evidence of an industrious crewman, who idled away the hours cutting lice combs and cases from the shells of hawksbill turtles, Eretmochelys imbricate. A well-appointed shipboard merchant owned an onyx inkwell and an octagonal ivory sundial made in Nuremberg, useless for telling the time in either Seville or the Americas but a sign of high fashion. Most curious of all are two greenstone whetsones and a greenstone labret (tribal lip ornament) that hint at the presence of a Native Indian woman accompanying the ill-fated Tortugas ship. Whether as a slave or dependent is uncertain.

Pearls, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Pearls, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Finally, as Mother Nature united well-heeled merchants and slaves in tragedy, the analysis of the animal bones shows that rats ran amock beneath the feet of the ship’s cat, who licked his lips at caged blue-headed parrots. Bones from the latter are the first archaeological evidence from any shipwreck worldwide of the transport of precious birds to Spain from central and northern South America.

Blue-on-blue Seville tablewares, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Blue-on-blue Seville tablewares, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

In an ideal world, perhaps submerged resources like these could rest untouched in the deep from the ravages of man. Idealism is a luxury that science can ill afford. Rumours about the discovery of a ‘Spanish galleon’ off the Tortugas Islands came to light in 1965, when the fishing-boat Trade Winds, trawling for shrimp, snagged its nets and pulled up three intact Spanish olive jars, metal artefacts, and pieces of ship’s rigging and wood. Numerous internationally important Spanish wrecks have been found through the same fishing impacts off Florida, Louisiana and Texas since the lucrative ‘Pink Gold’ shrimp grounds were discovered in the 1960s – with Key West at its epicentre.

Gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine Exploration

The pioneering work of Greg Stemm, John Astley, John Morris and Dave Moore on the Tortugas shipwreck using nascent computer coding, deep-sea technology, creativity and a can-do mentality that seems to be vanishing today represents an exciting moment in the history of marine exploration.

We hope that the publication of the first of two volumes on this shipwreck, saved from trawlers hunting pink shrimp, demonstrates the potential and necessity of deep-sea projects to save key sites from harm’s way and is a matter to be celebrated.

*** Meanwhile, Wreck Watch Int. would like to hear from anyone who can suggest parallels to the Tortugas artefacts from archaeological sites and wrecks in Spain, especially for the ceramic tablewares, which were largely manufactured in Triana, Seville.

  • The Tortugas Shipwreck collection is curated by Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, who have made key artefacts publicly available through its Virtual Museum.
  • A popular article on the Tortugas shipwreck, ‘Black Rats & Spanish Pearls Shipwrecked off the Florida Keys’ is published in the February/March 2013 issue of Current World Archaeology.
  • A preliminary scientific study of the ceramics from the Tortugas shipwreck is published in the 2012 issue of Ceramics In America, kindly made publicly available by the Chipstone Foundation.

Oceans Odyssey 3. The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet, edited by Greg Stemm & Sean Kingsley, is available from Oxbow Books in the UK and USA.

Oceans Odyssey 3

Oceans Odyssey 3

Odyssey Virtual Museum

Odyssey Virtual Museum

Current World Archaeology, February/March 2013

Current World Archaeology, February/March 2013

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New Study ‘Whistleblows’ Trawling as the Greatest Threat to the World’s Sunken Shipwrecks

A new report published by Wreck Watch Int. has identified fishing trawling as the most aggressive threat to the world’s shipwrecks and sunken heritage. This first worldwide study into the effects of fishing on marine archaeology, based on 68 examples and case studies, has revealed a pan-oceanic trail of cultural destruction that spans the globe from England to the Mediterranean, Florida and the Far East.

Bottom fishing is one of the most widespread sources of man-made disturbance to seabeds. Each year trawlers sweep an area of seabed equivalent in size to half the world’s continental shelves. For these reasons marine ecologists term trawlers ‘bulldozers of the deep’.

Underwater cultural heritage has been turning up in fishermen’s nets since 1755, when two to three dozen Roman bowls were snagged each year in oyster dredges off Herne Bay. Since then everything imaginable has been hauled up from the deep from a Neolithic dugout canoe off Bulgaria to 18th-century elephant tusks off Brittany, and more than 600 Bronze Age to Crusader amphoras from Turkey and Israel. Timbers as large as a 4.05 metre-long keelson and mast step have been ripped up from a ship lost in Denmark’s Wadden Sea in 1264, while shrimpers working in Florida, Louisiana and Texas have cut through 16th to 18th-century Spanish galleons. Further afield, pottery and timbers have been lifted en masse from Chinese junks and a Portuguese merchant vessel off peninsular Malaysia.

Chance catches include spectacular finds of museum quality, such as a shower of silver that rained down on the heads of shrimp trawlers working 80 kilometres off Louisiana after they snagged 12,000 coins from the Spanish warship El Cazador. A 4th-century BC ‘Dancing Satyr’ bronze statue masterpiece has been netted from a depth of 500 metres off Sicily, while the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu paid $3.95 million for a life-size bronze statue of a Victorious Youth, crafted between 300 and 100 BC, after it turned up in an Italian trawl net in the northern Adriatic Sea.

The Dancing Satyr, a 4th-century BC bronze statue snagged in a trawler’s net from 500 metres off Sicily.

Whereas marine ecologists have hotly debated ways to protect seabeds from trawling for over four decades, archaeology has failed to confront the problem: an out of sight and out of mind mentality has prevailed as a default position. In the 21st century marine archaeology finds itself rooted where terrestrial archaeology stood in 1882 after Colonel Lane-Fox’s concerns over plough damage to Iron Age Dyke Hills in Dorchester resulted in the creation of Britain’s first Ancient Monuments Act.

Wreck Watch Int. argues that exactly like ploughing on land the submerged resource and hopes of investigating well-preserved sites are ever diminishing through trawlers, scallop and fishing dredges pounding the deep. Over-exploited fish populations and marine habitats have the potential to regenerate over time, but underwater cultural heritage is more vulnerable. Once a shipwreck has been struck the damage is permanent. In the space of a few generations, some seas have witnessed the mass wiping of their ancient hard-drives, leaving behind a legacy to future generations of archaeological amnesia.

The Wreck Watch Int. report calls for brave decisions to be made to save and protect a small sample of the world’s most important sunken history by a combination of proactive measures – trawler finds amnesties, marine reserves, industry ‘taxation’, and full excavation to remove sites at risk from harm’s way.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Fishing and Shipwrecked Heritage by Dr. Sean Kingsley is available from Wreck Watch International, London: FishingHeritage-Kingsley. Its results are summarized in a Special Report published in the latest issue of Current World Archaeology.

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Tilting At Windmills. Spain’s Shipwreck Crusaders

Battle of Cape St. Mary off Portugal, 5 October 1804, which caused the loss of the Mercedes. F. Sartorius, 1807, National Maritime Museum, London.

The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Truth is the property of no individual but is the treasure of all men.” This phrase has been ringing in my ears of late as the 17 tons of coins from the ‘Black Swan’ shipwreck were readied for their long-distance flight to Europe. I hope the people of Spain enjoy the stories and lessons that the coins symbolize (after the collection is conserved at an estimated cost of at least $12 million), but I can’t help but wonder if the last five years of ugly legal proceedings have left us short changed in the truth department.

The most troubling dimension of the case that has warped US law is the hyper-sensitive political issue of sovereign immunity. Simply put, warships on exclusively non-commercial ventures still belong to the flag country that launched them; crossings with a commercial component lose this status. The concept is a very modern legal invention that has nothing to do with concerns over sunken archaeology and heritage, but everything to do with protecting modern naval equipment from downed planes to spaceships, submarines, 20th and 21st-century warships, personnel and weaponry, including nuclear missiles.

The Odyssey team examines a cluster of silver & gold coins on the ‘Black Swan’ site. Photo: © Odyssey Marine Exploration.

The frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was not carrying a black box, advanced weapons or anything that can be considered a State secret. Why did America’s judicial system and the counsel for Spain bulldoze the core reality that, as Odyssey rightly claimed, the majority of the ‘Black Swan’ silver was simply never State property. This is not even a matter of dispute. Take the word of the Spanish academic Julian de Zulueta, writing in a scholarly journal (‘The Battle of Cape Santa Maria 5 October 1804’, Mariner’s Mirror 96.2, 2010: 200-201): on 20 October 1804, Admiral José de Bustamante y Guerra, Rear-Admiral of the Spanish Navy, reported that over 74% of the coins transported on the Mercedes belonged to private merchants (650,000 silver pesos as opposed to the Crown’s 221,000 pesos). It is a misuse of historical sources to ignore the knowledge of a high-ranking Spanish naval officer who commanded the freight’s shipment.

Another twisted truth paraded throughout the Black Swan case is the self-belief that Spain is a long-term guardian of patrimony and knowledge, while Odyssey piratically ransacks the past. These daily accusations have been beyond defamatory and without scientific or historical substance. It is a topsy turvy world when Odyssey burns the midnight oil to publish scores of archaeological papers about shipwrecks of the deep, including the Tortugas shipwreck, a small Spanish merchant vessel lost in 400 metres off the Florida Keys in 1622 and the first ever deep-sea excavation (1990-91), while Spain demonstrates neither the allocation of resources, nor any published results dedicated to shipwrecks.

Unlike the cargoes and personal belongings of the more celebrated 1622 treasure ships the Atocha and Margarita, scattered to the four winds beneath the treacherous Florida Keys, the Tortugas ship sank and settled intact. Despite having been battered and bruised by trawlers since the outbreak of ‘pink gold’ fever for shrimp in Key West in 1949, the wreck contained the largest scientifically-excavated collection of olive jars, tablewares, pearls, animal bones, astrolabes, seeds, and small finds from the end of the Golden Age of Spanish trade with the Americas.

The Tortugas shipwreck was considered so interesting that following its excavation the Spanish government requested Greg Stemm’s assistance for the Seville World Fair of 1992 because the city lacked locally discovered galleon artefacts for display. Stemm and his team happily loaned olive jars, pottery, coins and other valuable artefacts, even paying for the assembly of an exhibit in good faith. But when the fair finished and Stemm asked to collect the artefacts, the Spanish government announced that the fair’s security company had taken the collection because they had not been paid. No compensation or apology was ever forthcoming.

While Odyssey quietly focuses on respecting science, it has been Spain that has publicly licked its lips at the financial value of its sunken past as the Spanish press regale its readership with promises of fantastic galleons lost off its shores. Between 1,500 and 1,800 treasure-laden shipwrecks are said to lie in the country’s territorial waters, and its newspapers have waxed lyrical about the 7.3 million ducats on the San Ignacio, 12,000 kilograms of minted gold, 5,000 kilograms of silver ingots and three chests of emeralds aboard the ill-fated Nuestra Señora del Juncal, and 580,000 gold coins allegedly lost on the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, without any mention of what their pottery or hulls may contribute to education and science. Spanish magazine and press reports cite local scholars as promising that more than €100,000 million of treasure is submerged in the Bay of Cadiz alone and €160,000 million in all national waters (Andalucia Informacion, 4 September 2010).

One of hundreds of silver coin concretions on the ‘Black Swan’ site. Photo: © Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Juan Manuel Gracia, President of the Association for the Recovery of Spanish Galleons, has gone on the record to say that there is “more gold in the Gulf of Cadiz than in the Bank of Spain” (20 Minutos, 3 October 2011). Equally oddly, Spanish naval sources stress that the country’s debt equals around 10% of the nation’s GDP (about €100,000 million), or less than lies neglected beneath the waves, and have called its sunken gold a “lifesaving miracle to cling to” (Revista Atenea, magazine of the Spanish Navy/Security Forces, 17 June 2009).

Meanwhile, Javier Noriega, Director of Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, has dramatically suggested that for decades Odyssey has “been given permissions for pseudo-scientific missions when all they come for is for the gold and silver of the Spanish”, while “Spain has been the main victim and target during the 20th century. They [treasure hunters] have destroyed sites of extraordinary wealth”. Does this stand up to scientific scrutiny?

Emotional fervour may win political points in pockets of Madrid and Andalusia, but the hyperbole is not supported by my own unrestricted access to Odyssey’s archives. As far back as 1989 Greg Stemm and his team created an electronic recording grid on the 400 metre-deep Tortugas Spanish navio of 1622, a limpet suction device to delicately recover artefacts and a sieve system to safely extract key collections of animal bones and seeds. The exact positions of 16,903 artefacts were plotted, a feat unmatched by Spain in its own shallow-water research and publications.

Similarly, the vast photomosaic plotting the exact positions of hundreds of clumps of coins, 286 copper ingots, 481 four-handled tin ingots, cannon and small finds across an area of 252 x 110 metres on the ‘Black Swan’ site is the most extensive scientific record of the kind produced in marine archaeology. Spain, meanwhile, is yet to publish one colonial-period galleon. If you want to study the archaeology of Spanish trade with the Americas, it is to Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Bermuda that you must turn.

Nevertheless, it has taken the mirage of foreign ‘treasure hunters’ pillaging Spanish waters to stir politicians into action to care for a heritage that has been in trouble for more than 40 years. As early as 1970 Peter Throckmorton warned in Shipwrecks and Archaeology. The Unharvested Sea (London, 1970: 217) that “It is probably safe to say that there are no visible wrecks on the Spanish, French, or Italian coasts under less than one hundred and fifty feet of water which have not been looted and fairly well destroyed.” Pretending that Spain has successfully managed its local underwater patrimony long-term is inaccurate.

Spain’s Green Paper. A National Plan for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2009).

Madrid’s answer to the problem, the 2009 Green Paper: A National Plan for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, reads like a political manifesto rather than a blueprint to map and protect Spain’s sunken heritage. Even the local press has criticized it as “a laudable theoretical exercise” that “violates common sense in a country besieged by crisis, cut backs and State debt” (ABC De Sevilla, 16 June 2010).

Karl Marx’s once tellingly commented that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. This moral observation reminds me of Spain’s crusade to see its warships legally recognized as sovereign immune. The profound tragedy was the loss of lives caused by the ships’ sinking that nobody should forget, the “farce” the notion that the world’s nations retain a legal entitlement to the content of historical warships by all practical senses abandoned in far-flung lands – carrying cargoes that were wrested from subjugated natives at the tip of a sword and that never even reached the country that now claims them.

As much as the American counsel for Spain has sugared the pill, history leaves no shadow of doubt that throughout the last 350 years Madrid has shown little cultural interest in its abandoned shipwrecks. In actuality Spain has harnessed the best technologies available to return monetary contents to the stream of commerce. Spanish overlords obliterated the oyster beds of Venezuela in the first two decades of the 16th century (history’s first documented case of unsustainable natural resource depletion by Europeans in the American continent), and in so doing stripped the Bahamas of its 60,000 population of Lucayan Indians as diving slaves. The enslaved divers, dredging and salvage equipment invented to mechanize the harvesting of pearls were later relocated to the wrecked warships the Atocha and Margarita sunk off the Florida Keys in September 1622.

Battle of Vigo Bay, 23 October 1702, by G. de Clerq, 1899.

Even though the 1620s recovery of treasure from these ships was technically salvage at the time, Spain has followed the same philosophy aimed at maximum monetary extraction into the modern era. The exploitation of warships sunk in Vigo Bay in northwest Spain is a case in point. The Battle of Vigo Bay of 23-24 October 1702 was a catastrophe for all involved. France’s 15 men-of-war, two frigates and one fireship were all sunk or captured. Of the three galleons and 13 trading vessels in the Spanish fleet, all were destroyed except for five seized as prizes by English and Dutch allies. About 2,000 Spanish and French people lost their lives, while the English and Dutch dead reached 800, making this battle site a real maritime cemetery.

The Spanish galleons had just arrived from America laden with treasure amounting to a suggested 126,470,600 pieces of eight, excluding contraband and the rest of the cargo value. The London Gazette called the Vigo galleons the “richest flota that ever came into Europe”. The loss of the Comercio of Cadiz alone was said to be worth eight million pieces of eight and in total an estimated 113,396,085 pieces of eight are said to have sunk. Like the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes blown up in 1804, the vast majority of the cargo was private property, in this case owned by Cadiz merchants and traders from England, France, Holland and other European countries for whom they acted as agents.

Down the centuries Spain consistently encouraged private enterprise in Vigo Bay. From 1723-48 no less than 17 concessions were granted by Spain to salvors using everything from drags to diving bells. Chests of silver were recovered in 1728, and in 1825 an English expedition found silver plate bearing the arms of Spain and the date 1691, cannon, bombs, artistic and precious objects, coins and ingots. The government readily took its 80% cut.

British warships blocking the harbour of Vigo Bay, 1702; silver medal of Queen Anne (1702-27).

The open embrace to foreign salvage continued in 1869, when the valuable articles found by the French engineer M. Bazin included a massive turtle crafted of native silver, as well as wood, guns and silver plate. In 1885 the Philadelphia based Vigo Bay Treasure Company lifted a hull, which broke up because it was insufficiently strengthened. Spain considered such cultural devastation to be an acceptable casualty of profit.

In 1904 Carlos Iberti travelled to Madrid and obtained a permit from the Spanish Government to search Vigo Bay using Giuseppe Pino’s famous submarine. Spain bent over backwards to support his commercial scheme in an age when archaeology and awareness of heritage were advanced. As Iberti wrote, “In Madrid valuable friends awaited me at every step: Cabinet Ministers, Under-Secretaries of State, Members of Parliament, Generals and Admirals all took the deepest interest in the enterprise, and vied with each other in offering me their powerful aid… In three months my negotiations with the Government of His Majesty Alphonso III brought me a Royal Decree, which, sanctioned by the Council of Ministers, bears the signature of his Excellency General Don José Ferrandiz, the present Naval Minister… I return to Italy, full of dreams…” Spain even dispatched its finest destroyer, the Clemente, to assist the Italian’s commercial venture.

1924 Italian expedition raising a galleon keelson from Vigo Bay. From Treasure Divers of Vigo Bay by John S. Potter (New York, 1958).

A hundred years before Odyssey Marine Exploration formulated the idea of classifying finds into ‘Trade Goods’ and ‘Cultural Artifacts’ categories, Spain applied a similar entrepreneurial model. As well as handing over 20% of all finds to the State, an extension to Iberti’s first concession dating to 24 August 1907 legislated for cultural artefacts to be retained by Spain in return for the market value of the object: “In fulfillment of what has been established by Art. 351 of the Civil Code, if any objects of interest to Science or Art or of any historic value should be extracted, they shall be given to the State, if it is required, and the State will pay the fair price, which will be fixed by experts, taking into account the expenses of their recovery.”

The arc of Spain’s eagerness to salvage since 1622 off the Florida Keys prevailed in Vigo Bay into the mid-20th century. Italian teams continued operations under the direction of Iberti, Count George Khevenhüller of Austria and the engineer Enrique Venturini in 1924, when they dredged the sunken fleet using a half-ton grab bucket suspended from a boom, which bit vast holes through the mud down to the ballast of every buried wreck. What is variably described as the 23-foot bowsprit or rudder assembly of the Almirante was lifted. Just before World War II a Dutch team brought a diving bell to Vigo Bay fitted with dredging equipment mounted on its open lower end, salvaged for 18 months, charted the positions of over 20 wrecks and raised tons of ships’ frames and planks. Several tons of hull were lifted from the Canoto in 1939.

1924 Italian expedition raising part of a ‘galleon’s prow’ from Vigo Bay (more probably a floor timber). From Treasure Divers of Vigo Bay by John S. Potter (New York, 1958).

Spain’s commercial salvage of the Vigo Bay treasure ships continued as late as 1955, when John Potter received a three-year concession from the Ministry of Marine under the following conditions: “The Spanish State will be entitled to the entire property of all that is salvaged, paying to the concessionary, in Spanish national currency, a 50 per 100 of its value while the extracted goods do not exceed one million pesetas and a 40 per 100 of such as exceed said amount… The Spanish State, however, reserves the rights to disclaim in favor of the concessionary… the property of such objects that are not considered worthy of conservation, without having to pay any price for the extraction thereof.” Irrespective of whether great riches truly ever ended up on the bottom of Vigo Bay in 1702, Spain’s subsequent 253 years of commercial salvage must go down as history’s most extensive continuous attempt by any nation to recover ‘treasure’.

Map of Spanish galleons in Vigo Bay. From Treasure Divers of Vigo Bay by John S. Potter (New York, 1958).

In declaring the Black Swan silver Spanish patrimony, the US Court has trampled into the ground a field of well-planted precedents. As recently as 1965 the Marquis de Morry del Val, Spanish Ambassador to the United States, admitted by letter quite candidly in relation to the newly discovered 1715 Plate Fleet off Florida that Spain had lost its claim to the treasure when it abandoned all efforts at recovery. The USA’s subsequent legal declaration of the Atocha and Margarita as Fisher property should serve as a clear precedent favouring the salvor (as it has for the past 2,500 years) in the ‘Black Swan’ case, a conclusion made even easier by this site’s location in international waters. Fidel Castro’s galleon hunting company Carisub has salvaged numerous Spanish warships and merchant vessels off Cuba (over 100 colonial wrecks according to press reports). Again Spain turned a blind eye.

A Carisub diver examining a cannon on a Spanish galleon wreck off Cuba. Photo: © Arne Hodalic/CORBIS.

Madrid’s disinterest in its numerous shipwrecks discovered by divers and salvage teams – commercial and military –is a telling indication of the country’s acceptance of abandonment as a practical precedent. Lost 80 kilometres south of Louisiana en route from Vera Cruz and New Orleans in 1784 with 450,000 pesos, for instance the 5.5 tons of coins recovered from the wreck of the Spanish brig of war El Cazador were awarded to the finder with no Spanish challenge. In this light, Spain’s crusade against Odyssey bears all the hallmarks of lashing out at a political scapegoat, using the threat of potential loss of sovereign immunity over modern warships, submarines, sailors, soldiers and downed nukes to twist the USA’s arm behind its back.

Gold bars, silver coins and astrolabes recovered by Carisub from a Spanish galleon wreck off Cuba.

My personal view is that the former Spanish government’s disproportionate pursuit of previously unknown and inaccessible underwater cultural heritage, symbolized by the ‘Black Swan’ case, has been triggered not by passion for the past but by residual historical insecurities over loss of empire. This is a great shame. Spain is a country with dazzling history, immense culture, noble traditions and wonderful underwater archaeology needing study.

Despite all the silly talk of the financial value of lost galleons, in truth the wrecks in the Gulf of Cadiz (also related to the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805) and lost in Vigo Bay in 1702 are largely so deeply buried under centuries of mud swept down from rivers that actually for once they really can be preserved in situ. As the 400 metre-deep Tortugas shipwreck shows, not to mention the promise of the ‘Black Swan’ site, greater potential for Spanish underwater archaeology lies far offshore.

Chest of silver coins from the Spanish brig of war El Cazador, lost off Louisiana in 1784.

For the past two decades Odyssey has endlessly reached out to Spain to collaborate in the study of heritage sunk beyond its territorial waters. If Madrid had agreed, then large swathes of Spain’s seas could have been mapped by now in the same way that Odyssey recorded 267 wrecks in 2005-08 across 4,725 square nautical miles of the western English Channel and Western Approaches for much less than Spain has spent pursuing the ‘Black Swan’ case through the Courts. Not one artefact from these English Channel wrecks has been sold, but Odyssey has contributed significantly to the archaeological record through their publications.

Perhaps with a change of government it is an opportune time for common sense to surface and for some Spanish officialdom to stop tilting at windmills and look to the future. Odyssey in the meantime will continue to respect sunken Spanish heritage, this year publishing a range of scientific reports on the 1622 Tortugas wreck, its ceramics, animal bones, beads, pearls, hull and ballast.

Bronze cannon from the Spanish brig of war El Cazador, lost off Louisiana in 1784.

Plans are also afoot to publish a report on the Black Swan site, which despite scaremongering was respectfully recorded. Here lies the greatest irony of the Black Swan tale. Divorced from its archaeological context, the silver coin hoard from the Mercedes is comparatively meaningless: these coin types are hardly unknown. The silver may now have landed in Spain, but thanks to the company’s scientific documentation of this wreck site Odyssey possesses the true treasure – knowledge that it plans to share with the world’s scientists and society.

Not once in the last five years of relentlessly pursuing the ‘Black Swan’ silver has Spain and its American legal team requested a duplicate archive of the project science to try and really understand this shipwreck. Led by its US counsel and dogma, Spain has shown more interest in treasure than truth.

Categories: Editorials | 1 Comment

The Sunken Past: Shipwrecks Lost in Translation

UNESCO – To Dig Or Not to Dig?

The question of to dig or not to dig has deeply divided marine archaeology over the last decade. In a hyper-urbanized world, whose seas increasingly reveal shipwrecked wonders, is it nobler to look and not touch, preserving what exists for future generations in an eco-friendly bubble? Or does society have an obligation to excavate, study and publish to expand the sum of finite human knowledge scattered across the seven seas?

Since UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2001, the concept of in situ preservation has taken centre stage in the theatre of marine archaeology from high government departments to the living rooms of bemused weekend wreck divers. Today the idea has morphed into arguably the most politicized and controversial Frankenstein in the history of underwater archaeology.

The producers of the Convention play are naturally familiar with their script, but the cast seems to have been left scratching its head. At many levels of university life, heritage management, and especially amongst the grass roots of the global shipwreck diving community, managerial confusion reigns supreme.

Numerous international conferences and meetings convened and attended over the last decade by heritage managers, contract archaeologists and commercial archaeologists leave no doubt that the core sense of in situ preservation has been lost in translation. It was specifically to help ‘unmuddy’ these waters that Wreck Watch initiated a questionnaire in August 2011 to explore the meaning and reception of this principle, especially to inform practitioners at the grass roots level.

Titanic – Dive & Study or Leave & Memorialize?

The 2001 UNESCO Convention was originally drafted to combat ‘treasure hunting’, which was considered by a powerful union of bureaucrats and heritage managers to be the major destroyer of underwater cultural heritage. Certainly, there is no doubt that some projects, epitomized by the salvage of 350,000 artefacts from the Tek Sing (lost 1822), grossly neglected the value of contextual archaeology. UNESCO rightly raises similar concerns over the Geldermalsen (wrecked near Singapore in 1752) and the Titanic.

To its credit the Convention has increased public awareness about the ethical indecency of plundering wrecks. Truth be told, however, treasure hunting was already far down the road to extinction by 2001 as self-imposed enlightenment led to the emergence of commercial marine archaeology, which in cases displays impressive skills of project planning, site recording, publication, fundraising, public education and media outreach.

Designed to exterminate a fading threat, in situ preservation was instead reinvented as a broader tool to protect underwater cultural heritage at risk from a host of threats and ill-conceived excavation. Custodians who had successfully cared for the submerged past for decades now found themselves on the wrong side of the law as in situ preservation was heralded in government circles as the preferred and ideal option.

At a session focused on ‘In Situ Preservation’ at the Institute of Archaeologists’ annual conference at Southport, England, in April 2010, in situ was described in separate talks by two university professors as UNESCO’s preferred approach (which Ulrike Guérin dispelled at the event as inaccurate). Widespread confusion and trepidation peppered the conference on maritime archaeology convened at the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore, in June 2011 alongside serious concern that in situ clashes with much of Southeast Asia’s chosen governmental modus operandi.

And in the recent Ministry of Defence and Department of Culture, Media and Sport response to the public consultation over the fate of HMS Victory (1744) the idea of in situ “was in the main favoured by archaeological bodies, many of whom pointed out that in situ management of historic wreck sites was the preferred option of the guidelines set out in the Annex to the 2001 UNESCO Convention for the protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage”. An arc of continuity links this document with the Burlington House seminar on the UNESCO Convention held in London in October 2005 by the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Nautical Archaeology Society, the Council for British Archaeology and the UNESCO UK Committee, where one prominent speaker stated that the 2001 Convention provides for “conservation & maintenance of archaeological heritage, preferably in situ”, accurately reflecting the tone of the assembly.

Serious concern over the incompatibility of in situ preservation with traditional excavation partly underlies the Penn-Brock Statement of Principles and Best Practices for Underwater Archaeology and the Stewardship of Underwater Cultural Heritage in the Mediterranean released in November 2010 following two conference consultations with leading specialists, especially university personnel, working specifically in the Mediterranean Sea. A summary of the opinions derived from these events heightened sensitivity that “Intrusive explorations, moreover, are potentially in conflict with the concern for in situ preservation articulated in the 2001 UNESCO Convention (Annex Rule 1) and raise questions about what circumstances justify such an intervention, who is properly qualified to undertake different types of research related to UCH, and who has the authority to make these decisions.”

Stirling Castle, 1703: Are Annual Multibeam Surveys Good In situ Preservation or Managed Neglect? © Wessex Archaeology, 2009.

As a consequence, reference to and recommendation of in situ preservation was conspicuously dropped from the resultant Penn-Brock Statement, which instead loosely stipulated that “Archaeological research plans should set preservation and the advancement of knowledge as their primary objective”. In my view the perceived tension between excavation and in situ preservation strongly underlay the formulation of the Penn-Brock Statement, in tandem with growing concern that the UNESCO Convention has been disproportionately directed by bureaucrats and lawyers, instead of by the protagonists of underwater archaeology.

Many maritime stakeholders are deeply worried that their interests are being ignored by governmental heritage bodies to paper over cracks in State managerial and budgetary failings. In the case of the Stirling Castle, a Royal Navy warship lost off southern England’s Goodwin Sands in the great storm of 1703, and the best preserved pre-modern hull in UK territorial waters, long-term licencee Robert Peacock fears that UK heritage departments are hiding behind the UNESCO Convention (‘Management of Neglect’, Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites. Annual Report 2008, 16-17). While deeply buried sites can be managed in situ off the UK, in the case of the Stirling Castle he has found through annual monitoring “that by adopting in-situ preservation the site has been left to be physically destroyed by the elements over the last 10 years with no protection. If this is how we are to manage our protected sites (which I can accept) then we must consider changing the wording from “preservation” (which it is clearly not) to “staged and managed neglect”. Comparable strong opinions span the cross-section between grass-roots avocational wreck divers and university lecturers.

Questionnaire Results

Uncertainty about how UNESCO intends in situ preservation to be interpreted lay at the heart of the 2011 Wreck Watch questionnaire, which was submitted to marine archaeologists/archaeological divers who have managed an underwater project or served as a supervisor on such a project; to university personnel who teach/support marine archaeology; heritage personnel (museums, charitable bodies, independent organizations) involved in management issues and policy in marine archaeology; and specialists involved in the study of artefacts derived from underwater cultural heritage (eg. conservators, ceramic/hull analysts).

The 58 respondents well represented these classes with the exception of commercial archaeology, which was under-represented in the number of replies:

• Marine archaeologists: 27%

• Contract archaeologists: 21%

• University lecturers: 17%

• Government heritage managers: 15%

• Commercial archaeologists: 10%

• Naval historians: 7%

• Conservators: 3%

From the total respondents, 57% felt that as an overall fundamental management policy the application of in situ preservation to underwater cultural heritage is a positive strategy. A further 46% felt that it was not. Rated between 1 and 10 (1 negative and ten positive), the impact of in situ preservation as a management tool received a current operational credibility rating of 54%.

Disagreement existed concerning whom this management tool is aimed at, with 63% of respondents answering that it was applicable to all stakeholders (contract archaeologists, commercial archaeologists and university projects). The remaining respondents provided multiple replies in which 25% indicated that the policy was not intended for contract archaeologists, 17% felt that it was not relevant to commercial archaeology and 21% excluded university projects as within its remit.

This polarized reception was qualified by personal statements that oscillated widely in understanding and, indeed, sentiment. A UK protected shipwreck licencee pointed out that if followed literally in situ preservation would have prevented the excavation and recovery of the Mary Rose and the Invincible and felt that “In a single generation we are witnessing the birth, ascendance and decline of underwater archaeology”. Another marine archaeologist commented that “In situ preservation has no supportive scientific evidence. In situ preservation has overwhelming scientific contrary evidence.” Several experienced field practitioners expressed serious concerns about the politicized “widespread canonical application” of the concept, which “can be implemented in a stupid and dysfunctional way, as a prohibition tool, by incompetent, hypocritical, lazy, or just plain stupid bureaucrats…”

On a more accommodating note, the majority of respondents stressed that the idea of in situ preservation should be proactive and is not an excuse for management to do nothing. One balanced comment emphasized that “For many national authorities and institutions in situ preservation seems to be the ONLY option in the management of the UCH. In this sense the UNESCO 2001 convention, for example, has been misinterpreted. OTHER management options (excavation, recovery etc.) are just as valid, especially if the archaeological potential of a given site is to be fully recognized, documented and presented to the public.”

In a similar vein a State marine archaeologist stressed that “When used correctly in situ preservation facilitates future/longer term research, educational/outreach activities and tourism. The methodology has, however, been used as an excuse to do nothing and watch sites deteriorate. The latter is not in situ preservation. In situ preservation requires active intervention. Not all sites are suitable for the use of in situ preservation, but many are.”

Many respondents, including government representatives, strongly felt that shipwrecks should be considered on a case by case basis since in situ “is not always practicable or efficient as depending always on the particular situation of each shipwreck… Sometimes to preserve better a shipwreck is needed to be rescued on the surface than to leave it on the sea bottom, to be restored and conserved with special treatment in the lab.” When applied correctly, “The policy of in situ preservation makes everyone aware that all factors at every site should be considered before excavating (destroying) a site”, in the words of another State marine archaeologist to bring “responsibility and respect for the unknown: the untold story in the relationship of the objects to each other, the unique record laid down in the interaction of the objects with the sea. And what can be learned from that, rather than being simply materialistic or trophyist about the past.”

A cross-section of all respondents’ comments is presented at the end of this article.

To Dig or Not to Dig?

The Wreck Watch questionnaire reveals that despite more than ten years having passed since the UNESCO Convention was adopted, both signatories and countries which have chosen totemically to adhere to its Annex (without having ratified the Convention) have failed to disseminate the correct meaning of in situ preservation as a managerial tool as understood by UNESCO. The reasons for this omission are best left to the various national stakeholders to enquire of their UNESCO representatives.

Gela Ship, Sicily, 5th Century BC.

At least on paper the true meaning of the concept is clear. As early as 2002 the history of the Convention was clarified by Patrick O’Keefe in Shipwrecked Heritage: a Commentary on the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage (Leicester, 2002). As well as discussing the issues of ‘creeping jurisdiction’ over the continental shelf and security considerations relating to marine access for naval purposes that continue to prevent the major maritime powers ratifying the protocol, O’Keefe very concisely explains in relation to Annex Rule 1 that:

“It is quite clear that this provision does not prohibit work on the site of underwater cultural heritage or even its excavation. In situ preservation is the first option only. If interference with the site can be justified then it may be authorized. Justification may consist of the need for scientific investigation of the site to establish what lies there; to save material from a site threatened by development, natural deterioration etc… Any decision to excavate for the purpose of making a scientific contribution to knowledge must be made with a full understanding of other techniques that may be available. These may not have the glamour of an excavation but may be more cost effective and provide the answers sought.”

As to criticisms that in situ preservation is inappropriate for shipwrecks that are continually deteriorating or being destroyed by industry, such as dredging operations, O’Keefe clarifies that “these criticisms ignore the fact that in situ preservation is only the first option. If a wreck is going to be destroyed, for example, during pipeline laying, and there is no way of avoiding it, then it can be excavated.”

Precisely the same interpretation is presented by Ole Varmer (in S. Dromgoole, ed., The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. National Perspectives in Light of the UNESCO Convention 2001, Leiden, 2006: 376), who echoes that “The first option is in situ preservation, but recovery is authorized if consistent with the annexed Rules.” In 2008, Martijn Manders stressed in Museum International (‘In Situ Preservation: the ‘Preferred Option’’, 2008: 31-41) that in regard to in situ preservation “It is, however, important to note that it forms just one part of management, and not – as often interpreted – the only right way forward. Excavation and preservation ex situ remain options for consideration, but must be backed up with strong arguments and a detailed description of planned execution.”

Late Roman Wreck at Pakoštane, Croatia. © P. Groscaux/UNESCO.

More recently, Craig Forrest agreed in International Law and the Protection of Cultural Heritage (London, 2010: 341-2) that “The principle of in situ preservation does not therefore mean that underwater cultural heritage is never recovered, only that it is recovered for a sound reason, and only after pre-disturbance archaeological investigation has been undertaken”, specified as protection from site looting, if wrecks/artifacts are exposed by, and at risk from, a storm or due to natural environmental conditions.

All of these sources readily accessible within scholarly literature expose the current climate of fear swirling around shipwreck management to be either a case of utter misunderstanding or conscious scaremongering. Nevertheless, it has taken UNESCO itself a decade to publish its explanatory Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Rules of the UNESCO 2001 Convention: a Manual (Th. Maarleveld, U. Guérin and B. Egger, eds., UNESCO, 2011), which categorically leaves no room for posturing or politicizing in the future.

Somewhat controversially, UNESCO argues in the manual that any misunderstanding in the wording of Rule 1 (“The protection of underwater cultural heritage through in situ preservation shall be considered as the first option”) is “nurtured by those who do not want any regulation to curtail their interests”, which this questionnaire suggests is inaccurate. Finally and crucially, the document confirms that “However, ‘first option’ is not the same as ‘only option’, or ‘preferred option’. Partial or total excavation may be necessary under certain circumstances and preferable for a number of reasons. Reasons may be external, such as development projects for which many sites need to make way. If their character is fully understood, some sites will be considered sufficiently significant to warrant their preservation in situ in spatial planning processes. This is very unlikely, however, to be the case for sites whose existence or significance is unknown or only vaguely indicated until development is well underway… Another external reason for excavation is the need to secure a site’s continued existence, due to instability of the environment, or due to the fact that stabilizing it would be so exorbitant in cost that in situ preservation would not be the preferred option at all. However, none of these reasons should prevent considering in situ preservation first. This applies to both the initiator and the authority who considers authorization.” After criticizing with some paranoia the “very creative” means identified by initiators of projects “in finding and formulating reasons for excavation by amplifying the magnitude of vigorous threats to a site” (which surely equally relates to heritage bodies inventing reasons to bar excavations), the UNESCO manual concludes by reiterating that:

“Rule 1 explicitly mentions three overall purposes for which activities directed at underwater cultural heritage can be authorized. These substantive reasons are:

• a significant contribution to protection, or

• a significant contribution to knowledge, or

• a significant contribution to enhancement.”

The Mary Rose: Never Again or Positive Education?

The manual’s final commentary encourages, yet cautions, that “In exceptional cases, a very good research design, addressing pertinent research questions, can be reason enough to sacrifice a stable site through excavation. However, it is certainly not the first option, and needs to meet the maximum requirements of state-of-the-art archaeological projects.” Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Rules of the UNESCO 2001 Convention: a Manual is published online in ‘Tutorial on the Rules Concerning Activities Directed at Underwater Cultural Heritage’. For a greater understanding of what in situ preservation means and involves, see the important results of the questionnaire on ‘In-situ Preservation and Storage: Practitioner Attitudes and Behaviours’ (N. Ortmann, J.F. McKinnon and V. Richards, Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 34, 2010: 27-44) and the resources listed below.

Much Ado About Nothing?

The 2011 Wreck Watch questionnaire flags up the concerns and, in many circles, the distrust of the spirit of in situ preservation imposed on marine archaeology today. This is regrettable and unnecessary. The various scholarly explanations of the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage reveal UNESCO’s true meanings and expose the current furore as much ado about nothing. How this meaning has failed to be faithfully disseminated to government and heritage bodies, universities and avocational wreck divers is a disturbing trend that demands serious questions be asked of national UNESCO representatives.

Diving the USS Monitor off North Carolina. © NOAA.

Truth be told, as potent a tool as survey has long been within archaeology, ever since John Ward-Perkins directed the South Etruria survey between the 1950s and 1970s, it is meaningless without knowledge obtained from excavation. Closed shipwreck assemblages have not only vastly tightened ceramic chronologies of all periods on land – the very foundations of stratigraphic archaeology as a science – they are the means of dating and determining the relative importance of sites surveyed underwater. Simply put, we cannot fully understand a shipwreck without comparative excavation.

As a blanket concept in situ preservation is hollow without qualification of the evidential value of a shipwreck site: the key question is surely not how well a site is or should be preserved – coherent or scattered – but to what extent can its character contribute to science and society. Formulating a value-based graded classification system focused on date, cargo/domestic assemblage character, level of preservation and site formation is a priority that UNESCO could choose to develop to equip signatories with a relatively objective and powerful mechanism through which to channel managerial options and, ultimately, to assess the appropriateness of in situ preservation as a valid managerial option.

Total Archaeology? The Archeomar Project, Italy.

In turn, this demands knowledge of regional volumes and types of wrecks and sites as have been registered through intensive surveys conducted off Israel, Croatia and most recently off Italy through the compelling Archaeomar project. In many countries in situ preservation currently ignores these issues, treats wrecks as culturally isolated and is being used as little more than a defensive parking ticket. Legitimate and careful excavation is the cornerstone of archaeology and is here to stay through controlled channels. To argue otherwise misunderstands the structure and purpose of the science.

Rather than solely cling to the UNESCO Convention, countries seriously concerned by looting and excessive excavation could introduce and enforce licensing systems as surely the most effective managerial tool. The strict measures by which the Israel Antiquities Authority grants permits, for instance, has for decades included evidence of university affiliation to ensure good science, proof of project funding and guarantees of preliminary and final publication timetables within two to five years (as well as a report to be submitted to the Authority within a year of each season’s excavation). It is no surprise that alongside America and France Israel has the highest publication rate in the world per capita of sites studied.

Archeomar: Diving for Deep Wrecks with a Submersible.

Finally, based on the results of its questionnaire Wreck Watch calls on UNESCO to present examples of acceptable case studies of in situ projects and excavations to be publicly presented, and for the current climate of all-encompassing excavation denial at the hands of many national heritage bodies to be replaced with respectful clarity. Careful project planning to acknowledge the concept of in situ preservation as the first option underlies the fundamental spirit of the Convention of the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, but the holistic understanding of the true synergy of marine archaeology must not be swept aside. UNESCO is right: the past is a finite resource and its study demands careful thought, rather than short-sighted exploitation. Ultimately, though, like a theatrical play archaeology can and should be approached and interpreted in myriad scientific and creative ways to gain maximum understanding from limited resources.

Select Respondents’ Comments

• “The policy of in situ preservation makes everyone aware that all factors at every site should be considered before excavating (destroying) a site. Promoting this policy does not mean “leave it alone forever”, rather it states that in situ preservation should always be the first option to consider.”

John Broadwater, Maritime Archaeological Consultant & former Senior Underwater Archaeologist, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

• “For many national authorities and institutions in situ preservation seems to be the ONLY option in the management of the UCH. In this sense the UNESCO 2001 convention, for example, has been misinterpreted. OTHER management options (excavation, recovery etc.) are just as valid, especially if the archaeological potential of a given site is to be fully recognized, documented and presented to the public. If in situ preservation will be the dominant trend in the future, there’s a risk of retardation in the development of practical underwater archaeology and waterlogged materials conservation.”

Rami Kokko, Researcher/Conservator, Vrouw Maria project, National Board of Antiquities, Finland.

• “The articles simply mean that underwater cultural heritage is best left alone unless full-scale excavation is planned. Otherwise shipwrecks would be stripped clean by collectors, as happened to so many amphora carriers off France and Italy within scuba’s first decades, or partly destroyed, like most early Spanish ships of exploration.”

 George F. Bass, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Texas A&M University, & Founder & Chairman Emeritus, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, USA.

• “It’s a simpleminded concept which is relevant in some cases, irrelevant to others, and its widespread canonical application reflects mindless fear and loathing of commercial archaeology. Practically speaking it means little or nothing to me.”

Thomas F. King, Writer/Consultant in Cultural Resource/Heritage Management.

• “Full compliance with the UNESCO Convention would bar future excavations like the Mary Rose and the Invincible (1758). In Dr Alex Hildred’s unpublished letter to The Times last December, she says: Mary Rose compliance could not be achieved in the Rules numbering 1, 4, 5, 7, 10, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25 and 29 and in my case add Rule 2 as we sold duplicate artefacts. In a single generation we are witnessing the birth, ascendance and decline of underwater archaeology. The USA who undertakes more archaeological work world wide than any other nation, has not ratified the Convention. The few countries that have ratified, apart from Spain, Portugal and Italy, are virtually unknown in underwater archaeology.”

John M. Bingeman, CEng, MIMechE, Government Licensee Invincible (1758) Historic Wreck Site (1980-2010); Government Licensee ‘The Needles’ Wreck Site (1978-1986).

• “If it means leaving wrecks untouched I would disagree. The touching will be done anyway by trawling, currents and storms. A small number of experts consider the remains of a ship more informative than its cargo. My interests being in the latter and in making three-dimensional history available to the public, I believe that skillful (Odyssey style) recovery better serves those interests. Besides, a ship enveloped in silt or sand at a depth beyond the reach of conventional divers is not doing anything for anyone. With that said, I would not want to see licenses granted to individuals or companies that cannot prove their commitment to treat knowledge as treasure.”


• “When used correctly in situ preservation facilitates future/longer term research, educational/outreach activities and tourism. The methodology has, however, been used as an excuse to do nothing and watch sites deteriorate. The latter is not in situ preservation. In situ preservation requires active intervention. Not all sites are suitable for the use of in situ preservation, but many are.”

Hanna Steyne.

• “Protection in situ should be faced in the same way as research. We have to choose wisely what to protect and how, and to do that we need to go on with the research. Protection in situ is a good thing but not to be applied as the only method to approach the underwater sites (as sometimes happens).”


• “In situ preservation has no supportive scientific evidence. In situ preservation has overwhelming scientific contrary evidence.”

Ric Oldfield, Director, Deeptrek.

• “In situ preservation is considered as a fundamental principle for the protection of underwater cultural heritage; practically it is not always practicable or efficient as depending always on the particular situation of each shipwreck; special conditions such as environment, depth, weather etc should be taken under consideration. Sometimes to preserve better a shipwreck is needed to be rescued on the surface than to leave it on the sea bottom, to be restored and conserved with special treatment in the lab. As any shipwreck is a particular case there is no one method to protect an u/w site as it happens on land; till now few methods have been proved efficient in the long term. On the other hand underwater archaeology methods and techniques will be more developed in the future and so in situ preservation ensures underwater cultural heritage for the generations to come.”

Katerina DellaPorta, Director of Antiquities, Greek Ministry for Culture, Athens Greece.

• “The protection of the sites should consider promoting the interest of the local (general) public (especially at the poor countries) to draw their attention to the objectives of safeguarding the wrecks instead of plundering the cargos on the [one] hand, on the other to make use of it till properly recorded”.

Ahmed Omar, Department of Underwater Antiquities, State Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt.

• “In most cases, in-situ preservation does not truly exist as a viable option for the management of submerged cultural resources. All items submerged in the sea are deteriorating at varied rates; it is only a matter of time before they all disappear. A better, more accurate description for this scenario would be in-situ deterioration.”

Gary Randolph,
Vice President,
Mel Fisher’s Treasures
Key West, USA.

• “It means responsibility and respect for the unknown: the untold story in the relationship of the objects to each other, the unique record laid down in the interaction of the objects with the sea. And what can be learned from that, rather than being simply materialistic or trophyist about the past.”

Shirley Strachan, State Maritime Archaeologist, Victoria, Australia, 1985-2000.

• “The different mechanisms (natural and artificial) acting in seawater don’t warrant the conservation of any item for a long time without continuous supervision of such items. The great amount of underwater archaeological sites in many places around the coasts doesn’t permit realistic supervision of such places. In deep water the distance from the coasts makes it impossible to monitor every place.”

Miguel San Claudio Santa Cruz, Manager, Archeonauta s.l., Spain.

• “In situ preservation means a practicable tool for underwater archaeological heritage (UCH) protection since, with current technology, some of the problems of preserving UCH directly derive from the danger of excavating (even properly) most types of historical items. ‘In situ’ protection permits an elapsed attitude with regard to the conservation of UCH that, perhaps, in a near future and progressively will be solved.”

Dr. Mariano J. Aznar-Gómez, Professor of Public International Law, Universitat Jaume I, Spain.

• “I deplore the concept of in situ preservation of underwater cultural heritage as being onerous, self-centred, far too late in time if English Heritage and UNESCO are serious, and self-destructive regarding the co-operation of amateur divers who have, after all, found the majority of historic wreck sites for themselves, saved the Mary Rose, and are the majority of Licence holders of Protected Wrecks [in the UK]. I consider it very ill-conceived.”

Richard Larn, OBE. Licensee of one site, two others in the past; member of the Mary Rose excavation team; President of IMASS; founder, owner & curator for 22 years of the Charlestown Shipwreck Centre, Cornwall.

• “If underwater archaeological sites are studied responsibly and protected in the same way, this in no way precludes future investigations; it allows for different kinds of research to be conducted; it preserves sites better than we could on land; and is exponentially more cost-effective. It is also an excellent way of preventing the raping.”


• “Conservation is situ is a reasonable policy based on two main ideas: 1) that we cannot excavate everything we find; and 2) that we should leave something for future generations. The planet is not ours. It is not a passive policy, because it requires active protection and monitoring when governments or other institutions adopt it. Unfortunately, like so many other good ideas, it can be implemented in a stupid and dysfunctional way, as a prohibition tool, by incompetent, hypocritical, lazy, or just plain stupid bureaucrats (of which, as we all know so well, there will never be a shortage on the planet).”

Filipe Castro, Archaeologist.

• “If underwater preservation creates safe circumstances free of looting, drag-fishing and wood-boring shipworms it would be ideal. If not, rescue is preferable. I oppose treasure hunting for commercial reasons only, but it can not be completely ruled out, as considering for example the case of the Belitung wreck.”

Dr. Eva Grossmann, Israel.

 • “Some sites, in-situ preservation is obviously not working where degrading influences are so great, for example the Swash Channel site. Other sites for examples: the Admiral Gardener, which is buried under 15 metres of sand, in-situ preservation is working, so we need to distinguish between sites at risk and sites that are not.”

Robert Peacock, Msc Maritime Archaeology.

• “In situ management is the first (and perhaps the final) step in a management practice but it may move into an intrusive management process if determined from considering site significance and threats and implemented in accordance with a project design (as outlined in the UNESCO Convention). This process is the most efficient manner in managing a site for all stakeholders (those that value the site).”

Bill Jeffery, Maritime Archaeologist.

• “In situ preservation severely limits or completely prevents archaeological study and it does not allow knowledge to increase in any significant way. The major driver for in-situ preservation is actually budget constraints, which ought not to be the driver of policy – decide goals first, then acknowledge constraints that prevent it.”


• “Leaving things down there that can rust, rot, or be dispersed by currents means knowledge lost forever. I would rather raise the ship and its contents, take it all apart piece by piece, record every single detail, and then bury the remains.”

Frank L. Fox, Birmingham, Alabama, independent naval researcher (particular interest in the history, ships, and ordnance of the 17th century).

• “As a policy it should be beneficial, but only when sites are actively protected from damage by mitigation and the law. When what is achieved is indistinguishable from neglect or abandonment then it’s a bad idea, doubly so when used as an excuse for doing nothing.”

Peter Holt, 3H Consulting Ltd, UK.

• “In situ preservation is an affront to historical application of archaeological processes to recover, preserve, and maintain historical prospective on an ever decreasing amount of historical knowledge available for mankind underwater.”

Ben Marich, Executive Director, International Marine Training Academy, Georgetown, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.

In Situ Preservation Resources

Archeomar Project: www.archeomar.it.

Brown, R., Bump, H., Muncher, D.A., ‘An In Situ Method for Determining Decomposition Rates of Shipwrecks’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 17.2 (1988), 143-45.

Cohn, A.B., ‘A Perspective on the Future of Underwater Archaeology’, Historical Archaeology 34.4 (2000), 18-21.

Dromgoole, S. (ed.), The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. National Perspectives in Light of the UNESCO Convention 2001 (Leiden, 2006).

Forrest, C., International Law and the Protection of Cultural Heritage (London, 2010).

González, A.W., O’Keefe, P., Williams, M., ‘The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: a Future for our Past?’ Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11.1 (2009), 54-69.

Grenier, R., Nutley, D. and Cochran, I., Underwater Cultural Heritage at Risk: Managing Natural and Human Impacts (ICOMOS, 2006), especially: Bernier, M-A., ‘To Dig or not to Dig? The Example of the Shipwreck of the Elizabeth and Mary’, 64-6; Broadwater, J.D., ‘The USS Monitor: In Situ Preservation and Recovery’, 78-81; Manders, M.R., ‘The In Situ Protection of a Dutch Colonial Vessel in Sri Lankan Waters’, 58-60; Manders, M.R., ‘The In Situ Protection of a 17th-Century Trading Vessel in the Netherlands’, 70-2; Viduka, A., ‘Managing Threats to Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites: the Yongala as a Case Study’, 61-3.

Greene, E.S., Leidwanger, J., Leventhal, R.M., and Daniels, B.I., ‘Mare Nostrum? Ethics and Archaeology in Mediterranean Waters’, American Journal of Archaeology 115 (2011), 311-19.

Kingsley, S., ‘Challenges of Maritime Archaeology: In Too Deep’. In T.F. King (ed.), A Companion to Cultural Resource Management (Oxford, 2011), 223-44.

Manders, M., ‘In Situ Preservation: ‘the Preferred Option’, Museum International (2008), 31-41.

Maarleveld, Th., Guérin, U. and Egger (eds.), Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Rules of the UNESCO 2001 Convention: a Manual (UNESCO, 2011).

O’Keefe, P., Shipwrecked Heritage: a Commentary on the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage (Leicester, 2002).

O’Keefe, P., ‘The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: a Future for our Past? The Implementation of the 2001 Underwater Convention’, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11.1 (2009), 58-60.

Olsson, A., ‘Some Reflections of Underwater Cultural Heritage Management’, MACHU Report 2 (2009), 48-9.

Ransley, J., ‘Rigorous Reasoning, Reflexive Research and the Space for ‘Alternative Archaeologies’. Questions for Maritime Archaeological Heritage Management’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 36.2 (2007), 221-37.

Richards, V., Godfrey, I., Blanchette, R., Held, B., Gregory, D. and Reed, E., ‘In-situ Monitoring and Stabilisation of the James Matthews Shipwreck Site’, Proceedings of the 10th ICOM Group on Wet Organic Archaeological Materials Conference (2009).

Stemm, G. and Kingsley, S., eds., Oceans Odyssey 2. Underwater Heritage Management & Deep-Sea Shipwrecks in the English Channel & Atlantic Ocean (Oxford, 2011, 1-26): various papers on ‘Underwater Cultural Heritage & UNESCO in New Orleans’.

The UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Proceedings of the Burlington House Seminar, October 2005 (JNAPC, 2006).

White, C., ‘Too Many Preserved Ships Threaten the Heritage’. In M. Bound (ed.), The Archaeology of the Ships of War (Oswestry, 1994), 179-83.

Vadi, V.S., ‘Investing in Culture: Underwater Cultural Heritage and International Investment Law’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 42 (2009), 853-904.

Williams, M., ‘The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: a Future for our Past? Towards a Two-speed Implementation?’, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11.1 (2009), 60-67.

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Shipwreck Sanctuary in Britain’s Secret Seas?

Wooden frames from the 17th-century Swash Channel wreck. Photo: Wessex Archaeology, Crown copyright.

Britain’s Secret Seas is a tough sell. Jetting around the globe diving with dolphins and gawping at exotic fish off the Great Barrier Reef, Florida or the Caribbean, we neglect the wonderworld beneath our murky home waters. A hard sell maybe, but the show’s successful blend of illuminating unknown nooks and crannies, and enthusiastic and knowledgeable guidance by Paul Rose, Tooni Mahto and Frank Pope, has spun gold from seaweed.

In the final episode peering into bustling southern Britain, Paul Rose drew the short straw, humorously trying to convince us that conger eels are magnificent as well as mean and moody. After a strange dance with a metre-long slippery beast, the ex-Antarctica Base Commander bruiser declared “I’m in love” after a “perfect conger eel encounter”. Priceless. The poor’s man’s ears must have been waterlogged. Despite trawler overfishing causing bottom-living stocks to plummet by 94%, congers are an unfavoured edible alternative. Other than stubborn survivors of prehistory who gave their name to a drunken party dance and clog up the firing chambers of shipwrecked cannon, what is the purpose in the food chain of this annoying predator?

The galley cooking structure on the 17th-century Swash Channel wreck. Photo: Wessex Archaeology, Crown copyright.

Paul Rose’s laughter turned infectious as the action turned to Tooni Mahto dancing with seahorses beneath Dorset’s Studland Bay. Who could have imagined that these delicate creatures are breeding under our noses in shallow camouflaged seagrass? Tooni, a marine biologist who manages to charm and chuckle with passion and grace while locked into a full face diving mask, is a rising star of the silent seas.

As the dive team returned to their home comforts, they explained that we could be about to lose the Short Snouted Seahorse and the Spiny Seahorse, which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Up to 300 boats drop anchor in Studland Bay in summer, in tandem with 10 metre-long swirling buoy chains ripping up the seagrass and blitzing the breeding colony. Little more than 40 seahorses (as counted in 2008) have sought sanctuary in these waters. Meanwhile, across the seas 20 million are killed annually for traditional Chinese medicine, and another two million sold for pets and souvenirs after being left to dry out in the baking sun. Surely we owe these delicate wonders a safer haven?

Elaborate stern carvings on the royal warship the Vasa, wrecked outside Stockholm harbour in 1628.

From one endangered species to another, Britain’s Secret Seas weaved the sorry fate of the Swash Channel wreck throughout the episode. The ship came to light in 2004 during a geophysical survey carried out by Wessex Archaeology in advance of dredging to deepen the approach to Poole Harbour for cross-Channel ferries. The 40 metre-long protected historic wreck site is now being recorded and managed by Dave Parham of Bournemouth University. The ship is an armed merchantman fitted with heavy guns and retaining exquisite decoration that would have been relatively standard in its day but is rare in UK waters. The pièce de resistance is the 8.4 metre-long rudder surmounted by the figure of a male human head.

The smaller finds, such as parts of wooden barrels and rigging and copper, pewter and ceramic wares, have been lifted to safety. The problem now surrounds the fate of the hull. Through an unfortunate, but hardly unexpected, attack of wood-boring shipworms making matchwood of the timbers, accelerated by the erosion of the cushioning sediments triggered by the dredging of the Swash Channel, the hull is falling apart. “This wood is rotting away before our eyes. There’s a real urgency here”, rightly warns Frank Pope, The Times Oceans Correspondent and author of the award-worthy Dragon Sea. The solution seemingly signed off by English Heritage and Bournemouth University is to recover later in 2011 a 12 metre-long section of the ship, presumably including the figurative rudder.

In an age when in situ preservation is being championed by UNESCO and publicly endorsed by Dave Parham, scientifically and financially is this decision that bucks the political zeitgeist the best approach? Is Paul Rose right to call the Swash wreck “one of the finds of the century” and should it be given special treatment?

Figurative carvings still in place on a 17th-century Dutch shipwreck in the Baltic Sea.

Originally said to be a rare high-status merchant vessel from the borders of Holland and Germany, whose timbers were felled in or post-1585, the site is now dated to the less eye-catching era of 1629. Dutch shipwrecks of this era are not uncommon. A near-intact 17th-century ship of probable Dutch construction with exquisite carvings lies 125 metres under the Baltic Sea, itself under attack from swarms of famished shipworms. If we want to study ship’s carvings and a rudder, the complete Swedish warship Vasa holds a cornucopia of data – infinitely superior to the Swash Channel site – and sunk in 1629 during her maiden voyage is of an identical date.

A stern carving over 3 metres long from the wreck of HMS Colossus, lost off the Scilly Isles in 1798. Photo: Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society.

Numerous hulls of this period litter the world’s seas. The Avondster, a British ship captured by the Dutch and used by the United Dutch East India Company trading with Asia, sank off Galle Harbour, Sri Lanka, in 1659. The site is better preserved than the Swash Channel wreck with the galley cooking area intact and the ship similarly sheathed with sacrificial planking. Other Dutch ships, including merchantmen found at Scheurrak and Inschot in the Waddenzee, lie closer to home. Meanwhile, other sculptures from a ship’s forecastle in the North Sea have been decapitated from their wrecked hull by fishing trawlers and thrown overboard by disgruntled skippers as cultural by-catch.

Do we really need more shipwrecked wood on dry land? In an ideal world, all endangered wrecks would be raised and stored in a giant archaeological deep freezer. This is a painfully expensive pipedream. The initial preservation of the 25 tons of timbers from the 15th-century Newport ship found along the River Usk in 2002 cost an estimated £3.5 million, which is a snip compared to the £20 million muted final bill. Since 2008 the Mary Rose Museum Project has raised £35 million to complete the conservation of the 19,000 artifacts found in its hull and to present this wonder to the public in a custom-designed museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

The 13 metre-long County Hall Roman shipwreck found in London in 1910.

History shows that in the long term lifted hulls not associated with a grand narrative, such as the splendour of King Henry VIII, or that are not one-offs like the Late Bronze Age Dover Boat, do not fare well. The 3rd-century AD County Hall Roman wreck sunk opposite Westminster and recovered in 1910 and the 1st century AD Blackfriars vessel lifted in 1962 are unparalleled in the UK, yet little of their timbers survive today. These discoveries have had a disappointingly low impact on the general public.

More recently, to great fanfare a well-preserved 3rd-century AD Romano-Celtic hull surfaced from the entrance to St. Peter’s Port in Guernsey, where cross-Channel ferries scoured and exposed not just the ‘Asterix’ ship, but since 1985 another five medieval hulls. Lost in the 13th-15th centuries, these ships are of international importance. In the absence of major historical touchstones or dazzling finds of Mary Rose quality, finding funds and homes for these noble hulls has proven a tough nut to crack. The 1,000 year-old planking discovered in 1991 by Stuart Bacon under Buss Creek, Suffolk, is equally exceptional. Despite the frames being carefully passed on to shipbuilding specialists, the story of this remarkable ship lost just around the corner from the royal Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Sutton Hoo is untold, the whereabouts of the missing frames a mystery.

A ferry crossing the Roman and medieval wreck site complex at the entrance to St. Peter’s Port, Guernsey.

A medieval hull recovered from the entrance to St. Peter’s Port, Guernsey.

Ship’s hulls need superstar status like the Mary Rose to warrant million-pound recovery projects or to be so unique that science demands their return to society from a watery grave. Does the 17th-century Swash Channel fit this magical bill? Will droves of tourists race to learn about this vessel’s secrets, bringing £500,000 into the coffers annually as at the Mary Rose Museum? The rudder should be lifted undeniably and its sculpture put on public display, as planned for the stern carving from HMS Colossus lost off the Scilly Isles in 1798.

Stuart Bacon examines 1,000 year-old timbers from the Buss Creek wreck, Suffolk. Photo: Suffolk Underwater Studies.

If funds can be sourced to bankroll ambitious ship recoveries like the Swash Channel wreck, this is wonderful news. If the funds come from the public pockets of English Heritage or the Heritage Lottery Fund, might these timbers be better respected long-term reburied elsewhere in Poole Harbour, away from scoured ferries lanes, so that the resources could be freed up for other needy projects? Saving the artifacts on the Stirling Castle, lost in the Goodwin Sands during the great storm of 1703 and the best preserved wreck off the United Kingdom, is no less a matter of urgency. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, there is no doubt that rather than graceful seahorses shipwrecked hulls like the Swash Channel wreck are the conger eels of marine archaeology: we know they are down there, to some they may be beautiful, but nobody wants to catch one and put it in a public aquarium. Get too close and you might bite off more than you can chew.

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Editorial: Tang Treasures, Monsoon Winds and a Storm in a Teacup

“There lived in the city of Baghdad, during the reign of the Commander of the Faithful, Harun al-Rashid, a man named Sindbád the Hammá… for I was a merchant and a man of money and substance and had a ship of my own, laden with great stores of goods and merchandise; but it foundered at sea and all were drowned except me who saved myself on a piece of plank which Allah vouchsafed to me of His favour” (One Thousand Nights and One Nights).


Storm in a Teacup

The adventures of Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Fourty Thieves in One Thousand Nights and One Nights are amongst our most cherished childhood stories, but what if they weren’t entirely make believe? From the improbable setting of the bottom of Indonesia’s Java Sea has risen 21st-century archaeological DNA that puts the oceanic adventures of Sinbad the Sailor across Africa and Asia in a real world historical context. The wreck of the first Arab dhow discovered in Southeast Asian waters has produced clear evidence for direct trade between the Arab world, the western Indian Ocean and China during the latter part of the first millennium.

From striking an isolated reef off Indonesia in the 9th century AD to its display this month in Singapore’s futuristic ArtScience Museum, the Belitung cargo has finally reached port. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds is a major exhibition organized jointly by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Heritage Board of Singapore that will crisscross the globe in the next five years from Asia to the USA, Europe and Australia, before the ship docks ‘home’ in the Near East a millennium late. Just when the wreck’s salvation from oblivion should be secure and celebrated, like the storm-struck mythical Sinbad himself the physical wreck is again sailing troubled waters.

The 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

The Belitung wreck was tracked down by Seabed Explorations in 1998, when the German company was awarded an excavation license by the Indonesian government. The fieldwork was completed in 1999 and the majority of finds sold in 2005 to the Sentosa Leisure Group for $32 million. A million miles from the spot where the Belitung cargo and hull were at risk from destruction at the hands of looters and fishermen, some Washington scholars are now criticizing the current show for endorsing commercial wreck recovery. Ted Schultz, chair of the National Museum of Natural History Senate of Scientists, believes that “substantial scientific information was lost due to the methods employed” during the excavation. Bruce Smith, a Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, similarly concludes that “this exhibition would send a very bad message to the public, that the Smithsonian doesn’t stand for the preservation of archaeological resources and that mining archaeological sites is OK.”

These few noisy critics see the recovery of the Belitung wreck as ‘treasure hunting’, which flies in the face of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage’s demand that “underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited”. Are these scholars ethically right to be affronted by the decision to promote this old ship in a travelling exhibition?

From Baghdad To Belitung


The 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

Here’s an alternative way of looking at these turn of events. In the late 20th century local fishermen chanced upon a pile of porcelain at the bottom of the Java Sea and saw a good opportunity to turn a quick buck for their impoverished families. Petty pilfering was nothing new. Shipwrecks off Indonesia are almost always discovered inadvertently by trawlers or line fishermen in open water and by aquarium fish divers and dynamite-fishing divers close to reefs. On this occasion in 1998 it was a sea-cucumber diver who first started harvesting artifacts from the Belitung wreck.

Through the grapevine Seabed Explorations got wind of some old pots and pans that stood out from the majority of ceramics fished up off Indonesia and secured the rights to the site. Such permissions do not come lightly or cheaply. Licences at times have to be rubber-stamped by 22 different government departments, which receive 50% of the salvaged cargo, usually based on proceeds of sale. This political choice is how many countries with low or no funding streams for underwater cultural heritage choose to operate in the Far East.

Even as the wreck excavation proceeded, the site remained at risk. When work closed down during the monsoon season, local divers immediately moved in, sometimes at night, and looted the site once more. Holes were smashed into the sides of large ‘Ali Baba’ jars stacked with hundreds of Changsha bowls that were otherwise too heavy to plunder. Unlike so many wrecks lost to man and machine that we never get to hear about off Southeast Asia, the ship’s narrative nevertheless could be reconstructed thanks to the excavation.

The same is sadly not true for numerous other cases. When the Desaru shipwreck was found off Peninsular Malaysia in 2001 by Nanhai Marine Archaeology, its upper structures and cargo had already been “shaved flat” by trawlers. Despite the placement of a hazard warning buoy over the site, a year later the trawlers were back and archaeologists found the seabed covered with broken planks, displaced bulkhead frames and a long steel chain and parts of a trawl net snagged on the timbers. Three heavy longitudinal beams belonging to the mast support had completely vanished. The energy, politics and personal dedication that go into saving shipwrecks off Southeast Asia are easily overlooked from the comfort of dry land in Washington, where perhaps the risks and realities of fieldwork cannot be easily visualized.

The 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

The destruction of the Belitung wreck by dynamiting, trawling or looting would have been a cultural catastrophe. As John Guy, Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, put it, “Sometimes, an event occurs which dramatically enlarges the boundaries of our knowledge… The discovery of the Tang shipwreck is one such event. This cargo is the most important hoard of Tang artifacts ever discovered at a single site.”

This wreck is literally a one-off. The 60,000 Tang-period objects conserved in Indonesia and New Zealand have rightly been described as the most important marine archaeological discovery ever made in Southeast Asia. The ship’s cargo mostly comprised Chinese ceramics from the kilns of Changsha in Hunan, with a small consignment of fine Yue white-and-green-splashed ware. Three blue-and-white dishes are the earliest intact examples of the Chinese style ever found. Large green-glazed jars from Guangdong were used to stow some of the Changsha bowls, as well as perishable goods.

The cargo includes 763 identical inkpots, 915 spice jars and 1,635 ewers apparently made to order in at least five kilns strewn across China. There was nothing provincial about the eclectic cargo, which cleverly catered for the global market – something for everyone. Some objects featured Buddhist lotus symbols and motifs from Central Asia and Persia, while geometric decorations and Koranic inscriptions were clearly geared towards Islamic markets.

What is so original about the Belitung wreck is that this was no bulk-carrying Chinese junk, examples of which are well known. Alongside the mainstream ceramics were exotic wares and gold and gilt-silver vessels, perhaps imperial gifts. A Persian dancer clapping her hands above her head and musicians playing various instruments adorn the largest Tang dynasty gold cup ever discovered. A pair of mandarin ducks decorating a silver flask, symbols of matrimonial harmony, and the repeat presence of pairs of birds, deer and ibexes on other ornamental boxes point towards these exotic gifts being shipped to the Persian Gulf for a royal wedding. An incised Chinese bowl dates the probable year of the voyage to AD 826.

Detail of a monumental ewer, 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

The Belitung cargo may be entirely Chinese in origin, but unlike the common Chinese imports of pepper and spices, organic finds reveal that the vessel was also carrying Illicium verum, the Chinese export spice star anis. The ship was clearly outgoing rather than incoming. But to where? Dr Michael Flecker’s study and publication of the hull, with its 15.3 metre intact keel, reveals that the ship is similar to Arab dhows of the Middle East. External hull planks and internal frames were all lashed together with cord, probably coconut-husk fiber. This form of technology evolved in the reef-strewn shallows of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf with its small, high-energy breaking waves by giving vessels greater flexibility than ships built with wooden dowels or iron nails. Crucial analysis of the wood species by Professor Nili Liphschitz of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University identified the frames, stempost, hull planks, anchor shank and dunnage all to have relied on Afzelia Africana, African mahogany. Dr Flecker argues convincingly that the Belitung ship was most probably constructed in Yemen or Oman in the Middle East, where traditional sewn-plank boats had been in use since Roman times.

Through a single site excavation, the Belitung wreck has revolutionized what we thought we knew about Early Islamic long-distance trade. In the history of marine archaeology it is to Southeast Asia what the Late Bronze Age Cape Gelidonya and 7th-century AD Yassi Ada sites are to the Mediterranean Sea in terms of groundbreaking new data about respectively Canaanite trade and the all-encompassing use of mortise-and-tenon technology for shipbuilding.

In the 9th-century the world economy was driven by two powerful engines: Tang dynasty China, an empire stretching from the South China Sea to the borders of Persia, and Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid dynasty from AD 762 onwards, that controlled peoples and commerce as far as the Indus River to the east and Spain to the west. Until the Belitung wreck came to light, historians assumed that Tang China trade pounded the dusty Silk Road though Central Asia. We now know that a more efficient Maritime Silk Route linked these two economic powerhouses. The latest research suggests that the Belitung wreck was outward bound from Guangzhou to the Middle Eastern port of Al Basrah, modern Basra in Iraq, the home country of Sinbad the Sailor, when disaster struck.

Saving the Deep

Changsha ewers from the 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

So here’s how I envisage the Belitung shipwreck. A site of the highest international importance, saved by the passion for the past and commercial astuteness of the government of Indonesia and Seabed Explorations that is turning on its head though fresh primary data centuries of historical presumptions – exactly what archaeology is supposed to do. Who could have foreseen, for instance, that in the ship’s three cobalt-blue underglaze painted dishes – a decorative scheme previously known from the Middle East, but not China in this period – that the Belitung wreck would reveal a likely Iraqi inspiration for China’s eventual ‘trademark’ blue and white porcelain that went on to rule the world.

No excavation on land and especially conducted beneath the sea is ever perfect, and I see no evidence that crucial information was lost at Belitung in the search for shiny stuff. The part of shipwrecks that critics of commercial ventures often rightly argue are destroyed or dismissed, the hull, has already been long published by Dr Flecker in an international journal. Was key data really lost during the underwater dig or was it just the commercial angle of the site’s management that left a Tang taste hanging over some of Washington’s ivory towers?

The Belitung wreck is not just a cracking discovery, it is also a symbol of cross-border unity, which I find uplifting and encouraging: an ‘Arab’ ship sailing from China to the Islamic Middle East excavated by a German company under Indonesian license, whose crucial wood identification was achieved by a Jew in an Israeli university laboratory. Doesn’t that sound like a fitting definition of Rule 8 of the Annex of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, whereby “International cooperation in the conduct of activities directed at underwater cultural heritage shall be encouraged in order to further the effective exchange or use of archaeologists and other relevant professionals”?

Silver boxes from the 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

As George Yeo, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in his opening speech to the ‘Tang Treasures’ exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, becoming the second government to give the wreck project the seal of approval, “In that cargo, sitting side by side, were Buddhist pieces and Islamic pieces. The mirror, which was an ancient mirror from the Han Dynasty, had the Ying-Yang, and the Taoist hexagram, the Ba Gua. They were all there. It was an age when different religions and different cultures met, and people rejoiced in trade. Those who invested in it, those who were a part of it, derived great wealth. So in a strange way, though the cargo is about the 9th century, it is also about the 21st century. And therefore I commend it to the world.”

Wrecks like these should be ‘feel good’ factors at times when the world has very serious and painful natural, economic and civil disasters to contend with. The world is imperfect and every day below the waves cultural heritage gets sacrificed as a by-product of dredging, fisheries and even sea cucumber diving. As a poorly resourced discipline, truth be told marine archaeology needs all the help it can get to save even a miniscule part of the past. This is especially the case in Southeast Asia, where, as Dr Flecker has discovered first-hand, since “most wreck-sites are threatened with looting or outright destruction, the priority must be to document those sites and the artefacts recovered from them before too much information is lost. The disposition of the artefacts after thorough documentation, while of great importance, should not dictate policy, for if commercial transactions are banned outright, the finders will be driven underground, and there will be no hope of archaeological intervention… Until cultural awareness gains the upper hand over profits and politics, this may be the best argument to ensure that irreparable damage is not done to the non-renewable resource of historic shipwrecks in Southeast Asia.”

A gold plate from the 9th-century AD Belitung wreck. Photo: courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington.

While it is healthy and right to question standards, from most enlightened perspectives the concern over Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds is a storm in a teacup. It hardly needs stating that no European and American museum collection is whiter than white. Commerce emerges as an essential part of cultural resource management today, just as it has been in filling the world’s museums with wonders. Without Lord Carnarvon’s deep pockets we would have no tomb of Tutankhamun, and through Lord Elgin’s exuberance London would not be home to the Parthenon marbles, bought by the British government for £35,000 in 1816. Even today, reality dictates that international blockbusters call on the likes of Mitsubishi, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, BP and Credit Suisse to sponsor archaeological events for public education and entertainment. Like it or not, commerce defines real world cultural synergy.

Julian Raby, Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, takes a long-term philosophical view of his new exhibition. “It is my sincere hope that this traveling exhibition… will encourage both the public and politicians in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region to value their maritime heritage”, he suggests. “The Singapore Government’s commitment in purchasing the cargo, and, surely, in creating a home for it on its return will hopefully be the catalyst for investment across the region in the structures and institutions that can best study and preserve the underwater archaeological record.”

Just as the distant memory of Sinbad the Sailor inspired for centuries One Thousand and One Nights, and future art and culture in the form of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Edgar Allan Poe’s Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade, not to mention ‘Sinbart the Sailor’ in The Simpsons, so the Belitung wreck’s safe recovery from the deep might too be talked about by society for centuries to come.

Further Reading

Michael Flecker, ‘A 9th-century Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesian waters’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 29.2 (2000), 199-217.

Michael Flecker, ‘The Ethics, Politics, and Realities of Maritime Archaeology in Southeast Asia’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 31.1 (2002), 12-24.

Michael Flecker, ‘A 9th-century Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37.2 (2008), 384-86.

Sean Kingsley, ‘The Unexcluded Past. Managing Shipwreck Archaeology’, Minerva 12.1 (2010), 37-44.

Sean Kingsley, ‘Into the Abyss: Deep-Sea Shipwrecks, Science & Scandal‘, Current World Archaeology 33 (February/March 2009), 34-43.

Regina Krahl, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson and Julian Raby (eds.), Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds (Smithsonian Books, 2011).

Underwater Cultural Heritage & UNESCO in New Orleans(Odyssey Marine Exploration Papers 13, 2010).

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