As many members of RESCUE will be aware, considerable controversy was sparked in the autumn of 2002 when the British Government, in the form of the Ministry of Defence Disposal Services Agency signed a contract with an American salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. of Florida, to recover bullion from the wreck of 17th century warship, HMS Sussex. The Sussex was lost in 1694 while on her way to deliver the bullion to the Duke of Savoy who was supporting Britain in her war with Louis XIV of France. The wreck lies at a depth of over 2,500 feet in waters which are disputed as being Spanish or International. The agreement, which was originally available at www.pm.gov.uk/output/Page6235.asp, but now appears to have been removed, was controversial because of its explicit ‘treasure hunting’ character and the fact that the project will be funded by the sale or material and artefacts recovered from the wreck. The agreement with the salvage company acknowledges the U.K. as the owner of the wreck but entitles the salvage company to take between 40% and 60% (depending on the market value) of the proceeds of the sale of artefacts recovered during the salvage operation. The Government has committed itself to a scheme whereby the artefacts will be sold under a joint marketing arrangement and rights to merchandise traded under the name HMS Sussex will be turned over to the salvors in exchange for a royalty. Government expenses are to be paid out of the proceeds from the sales of artefacts or from commission on merchandise, insured by a deposit of £250,000 made by the salvage company.
Concern amongst archaeologists was based upon the fact that the project appeared to be centred around the recovery of bullion, rather than the investigation of the wreck for archaeological reasons. Strong objections were registered by a number of organisations, including the Council for British Archaeology and RESCUE. The details of the C.B.A. case can be found at www.britarch.ac.uk/conserve/sussex.html with further discussion of the issue at www.hero.ac.uk/business/battle_of_the_bullion2910.cfm.
Members of Parliament, led by Mr Edward O’Hara MP, put down an Early Day Motion noting the several positive steps recently taken by the Government in respect of archaeology and deploring the approach taken towards the wreck of the Sussex. To date sixty-three MPs have signed the Motion, the full text of which can be found at edm.ais.co.uk/weblink/html/printable.html/ref=250.
In a recent development, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. have announced that the archaeological consultants Gifford and Partners have been appointed to act as archaeological consultants to the expedition. A statement issued by Odyssey includes the following statement from Greg Stemm, a co-founder of Odyssey
“Gifford is a Registered Organisation with the Institute of Field Archaeologists and has a great breadth of experience. They seemed like the clear choice to join us as partners to look after the archaeological aspects of this project. Combining Gifford¹s skills with our deep-ocean search and recovery capabilities will establish new standards for archaeology in the deep ocean.” (shipwreck.net/gppr01.html).
Although archaeological issues are given a high profile in the statement, it is clear that the recovery of the bullion is still a high priority as the value, derived from the sale of the assets recovered will still be shared between the government and the company.
RESCUE remains concerned that the appointment of Gifford and Partners is no more than a form of ‘window dressing’ designed to placate those who are concerned at the rationale behind the expedition and to allay fears as to the treatment of the wreck which is, first and foremost, an archaeological site. RESCUE have approached Gifford and Partners for a comment but to date no response has been received. We remain eager to hear the archaeological side of the argument for the expedition and the measures that will be taken, at depths below which divers can operate in safety, to ensure that the conduct of the operation will ‘ensure that all work is conducted in accordance with the highest archaeological best practice’, as claimed by Gifford’s Principal Archaeologist, Mr Anthony Martin (shipwreck.net/gppr01.html). We look forward to being able to publish the details in a later update on this matter.