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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Sunken America’s Holy Grail – Earliest Human from Mexico’s Black Abyss

A human skull found in the Hoyo Negro cave, Mexico. Photo: Daniel Riordan-Araujo.

Deep within the flooded cave of Hoyo Negro, the ‘Black Hole’ in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, explorers from PET (Projecto Espeleológico de Tulum) have possibly discovered America’s earliest human remains. After diving along 1,200 metres of underwater passages through an eerie submerged Ice Age landscape using underwater propulsion scooters, the team of Alex Alvarez, Franco Attolini and Alberto Nava touched down at a depth of 57 metres and started surveying a 60 x 36 metre cavern.

Near to several megafauna remains, including a mastodon bone, the team came across a sight that caught their breath. “I was searching for more of the mastodon remains”, recalled Alvarez, “when I saw what looked like a human skull. I had thought we already had a great discovery after finding the remains of several Pleistocene animals… but finding a human skull was totally amazing for us. All of our efforts… walking through the jungle, carrying all the gear, securing the helium required to do such a deep dive… paid off at that moment. This is the Holy Grail of underwater cave exploration.”

Remains of an extinct mastodon in the Hoyo Negro cave, Mexico. Photo: Daniel Riordan-Araujo.

Some 12,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene period, the Earth was rocked by great climatic change. As the ice caps melted, a global flood triggered a colossal rise in sea levels, which flooded low-lying coastal landscapes. Many of the underground spaces where for millennia animals had rested and taken on water, and where tribes escaped the sun and performed cultic rituals, were inundated.

Although radiometric dating of the bones is still pending, the bones found with the megafauna remains in Hoyo Negro could represent the oldest evidence of humans in the Americas. Guillermo de Anda, an archaeologist from the University of Yucatan in Merida, believes that “The findings of Hoyo Negro are a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. The skull looks pre-Maya, which could make it one of the oldest sets of human remains in the area… Therefore, protecting and learning the secrets of Hoyo Negro should be one of the main priorities for the archaeologists in the region.”

Detailed analysis of the human skeletal remains from Hoyo Negro, a site located inside the Aktun-Hu cave system in the state of Quintana Roo, is expected to help reveal when these Paleoindian peoples reached this area and, ultimately, who were the First Americans, one of the great mysteries in American archaeology.

 

Source: NatGeo News Watch.

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Odyssey’s Jacksonville ‘Blue China’ Wreck: a Mid-19th Century East Coast Schooner

Plan of the 370 metre-deep Jacksonville 'Blue China' shipwreck (Site BA02), mid-19th century. Photo: © Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Just published – the first two reports by Odyssey Marine Exploration on its rescue archaeology on a mid-19th century wreck (Site BA02) lost at a depth close to 370 metres, 70 nautical miles off Jacksonville, Florida.

The wreck was brought to Odyssey’s attention in 2003 by a fisherman, whose nets had snagged ceramic wares over the last 40 years. A small selection of artifacts was recovered in 2003 and the wreck arrested in court. The site was revisited by Odyssey in 2005, when disturbing further impacts were documented, caused by recent dragging of trawl nets in the interim years by shrimp boats seeking fish for America’s booming sushi restaurants. Further diagnostic material culture was recorded in relation to its contexts prior to select recovery to identify and date the site before the wreck became even more extensively disturbed and data lost.

Lines of ceramics disturbed and cleared by trawl gear running across Site BA02. Photo: © Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Site BA02 contains the remains of a small American coastal schooner that was transporting a consignment of British ceramics manufactured in Staffordshire in the decade 1850-60 alongside American glass wares and building materials. The most plausible theory is that the ship was lost in a hurricane, with the great storm of September 1854 the most likely candidate.

The vessel appears to have been a two-masted schooner typical of the East Coast’s thriving regional maritime trade based in New York City. The Jacksonville ‘Blue China’ shipwreck reflects the lure of high status, yet relatively cheap, Staffordshire and US products that prevailed across middle class America and permeated down into the lower classes. This is surprisingly the first wreck of any mid-19th century coaster found off America with a substantial cargo and reflects the roots of New York’s original mercantile and economic rise to urban stardom.

Two further reports on the Jacksonville ‘Blue China’ wreck’s tobacco pipes and glass wares will be published soon.

Download OME Papers 19 and 20 from Odyssey Marine Exploration’s website.

The only preserved stack of British shell-edged plates and platters on the 370 metre-deep Jacksonville 'Blue China' shipwreck. Photo: © Odyssey Marine Exploration.

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Moby-Dick Wreck Found in the Pacific

“No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe” (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 1851).

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The ship captained by the man whose adventures at sea inspired one of the great American novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, has emerged from the battered shallow reef where it sank on 11 February 1823, some 600 miles northwest of Honolulu. The Nantucket whaler the Two Brothers was under the captaincy of George Pollard Jr. when it struck the French Frigate Shoals in today’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean, at 139,797 square miles the largest conservation area under the US flag. After abandoning ship, the crew survived a harrowing night by clinging to the ship’s boats, fortunately to be picked up the next morning by another Nantucket whaler.

Just a few years earlier Pollard had earned infamous notoriety in 1819 as captain of another Nantucket whaling vessel, the Essex, which had the ill fortune to be rammed and sunk by an 85 foot-long spermaceti whale in the South Pacific.

Dr Kelly Gleason with a whaling trypot off French Frigate Shoals. Photo: NOAA/Greg McFall.

As Owen Chase, First Mate of the Essex, would later recount in his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket (New York, 1821), “He spouted two or three times, and then disappeared. In less than two or three seconds he came up again, about the length of the ship off… he came down upon us at full speed, and struck the ship with his head, just forward of the fore-chains, he gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces. The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck rock, and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf. We looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech… the ship had settled down a considerable distance in the water, and I gave her up as lost”. During their trials on the sea voyage home, home George Pollard and his crew only survived by resorting to cannibalism as they drifted across an empty sea.

The Two Brothers was part of a fleet of several hundred whaling ships that played a major role in America’s economic and political expansion into the Pacific, transforming the region, including Hawaii, both economically and culturally. This colonialism resulted in the near extinction of many whale species.

Dr Kelly Gleason with a blubber hook off French Frigate Shoals. Photo: NOAA/Greg McFall.

Marine archaeologists identified the scattered wreck, heavily pounded by the waves, through the survival of two large anchors, three cast iron trypots used to melt whale blubber to produce oil, and the remains of part of the ship’s rigging – all typical of the gear used on early 19th-century whalers. The location of the wreckage matched the general location of where the Two Brothers had grounded. The picture was confirmed by recent fieldwork that found blubber hooks, five whaling harpoon tips, three whaling lances, four cast-iron cooking pots and American ceramics and glass wares, confirming the date and nationality of the wreckage.

The 19th-century whaling industry was one of the most prominent businesses in America. By 1846, 736 whalers were based in the ports of southern New England and Long Island. Whales were thought of as swimming oil wells. The waxy oil derived from the head of the sperm whale, spermaceti, was highly prized for making the finest candles in the world. The bones and teeth of various species, meanwhile, were exploited for numerous products from collar stays to buggy whips, toys and even for springs in early typewriters. Baleen from the mouths of some species of whale was the de rigueur fashion accessory for the manufacture of ladies corsets. Whalebone was the plastic of the 1800s.

Dr Kelly Gleason with a ginger jar from the French Frigate Shoals whaler wreck of the Two Brothers, lost in 1823. Photo: NOAA/Greg McFall.

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Extreme Booze From the Deep

Examining a beer bottle from an early 19th-century wreck in the Baltic Sea. Photo: VTT Technical Research Centre, Finland.

If the 168 bottles of Veuve Clicquot and Juglar types of champagne recovered from an early 19th century wreck off the Åland archipelago at the bottom of the Baltic Sea are not to your taste – or at an expected $70,000 a pop don’t suit your wallet – fear not. It seems the ship, found between Finland and Sweden, catered for all tastes and occasions. Five bottles of beer from the wrecked schooner are now being heralded as amongst the world’s oldest preserved pints.

The VTT Technical Research Center of Finland hopes its analysis of a sample of the ‘pale ale’ will determine the original brewing recipe through identification of microbes, such as yeast or lactic acid bacteria. VTT scientist Arvi Vilpola has had a sneaky first gulp of the brew and reported that “It was a little sour and you could taste the saltiness of it slightly.” The team hopes to use these remains to bring the beverage back to life for modern consumers.

Chateau Jiahu, a Neolithic beer available from the Dogfish Head Brewery, Delaware.

All good fun, but for age this is literally small beer compared to the hard stuff knocked out by early Celtic revellers at Eberdingen-Hochdorf in southwestern Germany. Excavations in a series of 2,500 year-old ‘industrial’ ditches were stuffed with thousands of barley grains from high-quality barley malt, a key ingredient of beer.

Reconstructions of Celtic ceremonial boozing at the site by archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart suggest that the barley was soaked in specially constructed ditches until it sprouted. The grains were then dried by fire, instilling the malt with a smoky taste. Lactic acid bacteria stimulated by the slow drying of the soaked grains added sourness to the brew. In the place of modern hops, the Eberdingen-Hochdorf brew was probably flavoured with spices like mugwort, carrot seeds or henbane. But beware: Prof. Stika warns that this drink would have been an “extreme beer”. Little wonder the Roman emperor Julian condemned Celtic beer as smelling “like a billy goat.”

Even millennia older than Celtic and Egyptian beer, however, is the 9,000-year-old hard stuff recreated by an American brewery after analysing the linings of Neolithic pottery found at a burial site in Henan province in central China. The brew was identified by Dr Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, after he came across sherds from the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province. The Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware has started making Chateau Jiahu from wildflower honey, muscat grapes, barley malt, hawthorn fruit and chrysanthemums. The wort is fermented for about a month with Sake yeast until the $13 a bottle beer is ready for packaging.

This winter there’s plenty of options for all manner of adventurous tipples – salty malt, Billy goat beer or fruity Dogfish brew. Or you could just go down the pub.

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UK Maritime Funding Hits the Gravel

Photo: courtesy British Marine Aggregate Producers Association.

Hot on the heels of the government’s decision to abolish after 30 years of service the crusaders of Britain’s vast submerged heritage, the Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites, the lid to marine archaeology’s limited resource coffers in the UK has closed some more. The ‘white knight’ that was the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund will disappear in a puff of smoke in March 2011.

This pot of silver earmarked for reducing the environmental impacts of the extraction of aggregates was a success story for a cog of marine science that has traditionally had to beg for funds at the bottom of the food chain. Gravel dredging is big business. The UK has the largest offshore dredging industry in Europe and is one of the biggest in the world. Figures for 2006 suggest an annual processed sale value of £293 million. The marine aggregates industry operates 28 purpose built dredgers with a total replacement value of £1 billion.

Some 138 square kilometres of the UK’s continental shelf was actively dredged in 2008 to provide aggregate for the building industry. The war chest levy was introduced in April 2002 at a rate of £1.60 per tonne, and since 2009 had stood at £2.00 per tonne to enable the effects of dredging on shipwrecks and submerged prehistoric settlements to be modeled and managed.

According to DEFRA, “We have had to look very carefully across all the Department’s priorities to see where we can make best use of available funds in a very tight spending context. Unfortunately, the Department is no longer in a position to be able to continue the funding of the ALSF programme.” It is unclear how these funds are to be otherwise ‘prioritised’.

All seemed to be running particularly smoothly. The ALSF 2008-11 Evaluation concluded only in 2010 that “The Fund will generally deliver good value for money with potentially more significant gains in the longer term… The ALSF is now a mature programme with considerable momentum behind it, a good reputation and a wide community of interest. In some areas it has an influential European and international profile…”

You only have to peer over the sea to Holland’s Flushing wharf, where recent dredging has brought up 16th-century coins, boat and ship fittings, a British aircraft part, anchors and mammoth teeth – all declared to Wessex Archaeology – to see the value of this excellent scheme. In the UK, Wessex Archaeology reported the discoveries in 2009 and 2010 of a Roman mortaria in Licence Area 107 off Lincolnshire and a collection of late 18th-century hallmarked silver dredged from Licence Area 254 bearing the crest of the 6th Earl of Stair, John Dalrymple (1749-1821).

A Mesolithic site of around 8,500 BC off Great Yarmouth only came to light after a Dutch dredger declared the discovery of wood, bone, antler and struck flint. Since 2005 Wessex Archaeology has secured filings on 784 finds dating from the Palaeolithic period to the modern day. Hopefully the Awareness Programme that has so successfully monitored landings of dredged underwater cultural heritage, and generated great interest amongst ‘Site Champions’ on the wharves where the dredgers land, will find another income stream and live on.

Defra’s mission statement says that “We deal with environmental risks and work towards securing a sustainable society and a healthy environment.” What does the latest development tell us about the sustainability and health of underwater cultural heritage? The £2,715,759 that the ALSF allocated English Heritage in 2005 for various multi-year projects may seem like a cheap investment if an intact wooden wreck sunk in the middle of an aggregate licence area demands future rescue excavation. What price the sunken past?

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