IRAQ museum reopens

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Treasure raiders scooping up UK heritage

metal-detector-001Not all treasure thieves tiptoe through the shells of Iraqi museums or churn up the deserts of Peru in their hunt for valuable antiquities. Nearer to home “nighthawkers” are using metal detectors and online auctions to strip rural Britain of its archaeological riches, and their illegal activities are proving every bit as destructive.

English Heritage has been so concerned about the extent of the depredation that it commissioned a study, which revealed that what was once an illicit hobby has mushroomed into a semi-professional criminal industry.

According to police, thieves have formed loosely connected networks to trade information, often in online forums, about new and vulnerable sites.

Some farmers have been threatened after confronting groups trespassing on their land at night.

The survey, published today, found that while bronze axes, Roman coins, Saxon jewels and other precious scraps of British history are being looted from officially protected sites and open farmland, few nighthawkers are being prosecuted. Many landowners do not report the thefts as they believe police will find them difficult to prove, or they think that even if a case reaches court the penalties will be paltry.

The study found the practice to be most prevalent in eastern and central regions, such as Norfolk, Essex and Oxfordshire, which are rich in sites ranging from the prehistoric to medieval eras.

More than 200 raids were reported between 1995 and 2008, more than a third of them affecting scheduled ancient monuments. Archaeologists believe this figure represents the tip of the iceberg. To their despair, in the handful of cases that have gone to court the thieves usually received just a caution, or a fine as low as £38. Not surprisingly, only 14% of landowners bother to report this type of crime, knowing that unless the nighthawkers are caught red-handed the most the criminals are likely to be accused of is trespass, according to the survey.

Once objects are removed it is almost impossible to establish their provenance, and many end up being sold on eBay.

Yet if the treasure seekers do act with the landowner’s permission, and report finds under the portable antiquities scheme, in most cases the objects will be recorded, and then returned to the finders.

Mike Pitts, editor of the journal British Archaeology, said: “I could drive to a well-known ancient site, dig holes all over it and sell the stolen proceeds with little risk of prosecution. I get more attention from a traffic warden when I park outside my front door.”

At Buckinghamshire county museum, Brett Thorn, curator of archaeology, tells the story of a set of rare British bronze-age axes, bought in the Netherlands, on eBay, by a metallurgist who paid £205. They were eventually donated to the museum by the buyer, but Thorn says information about the site where they were found would have been the real treasure.

Pete Wilson, an archaeologist with English Heritage, said: “This is seen as a victimless crime. But we are all the victims, our history is being stolen. We hope that through education we can make people regard nighthawking as abhorrent as taking birds’ eggs – once commonplace – is generally regarded now.”

Illicit digs: Sites hit by thieves

Thanet, Kent

Axe and spear heads and gold jewellery dating back to the bronze age were snatched in a raid on a site in 2007. The thief was traced as he declared part of the hoard to the authorities so as to keep some items legitimately. Experts were suspicious and police raided his home, discovering several priceless artefacts. The thief, who had no previous convictions, accepted a caution for criminal damage.

Lindum, Lincolnshire

Uninvited people dug 20 holes at the Roman villa site one night in 2007. To deter further exploring, the dig organisers had to scan the robbers’ trenches and extract any remaining metal items. They despaired over the damage to the archaeological record.

Catterick, North Yorkshire

The roadside settlement at Bainesse Farm and the site of the Roman town of Cataractonium were hit by thefts but helped by sanctioned detecting. In 1996, local metal detector enthusiasts approached English Heritage to fund organised searches following the thefts. Work continued over three years, creating a body of evidence that helped to protect the sites.

Icklingham, Suffolk

The Roman settlement has been a frequent target of nighthawkers over 30 years. Archaeologists have used security patrols, thermal imaging cameras and movement detectors to deter thieves. Dozens have been prosecuted for raiding the site over the years, with fines of up to £500 each.

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Neanderthal genome unravelled

neanderthalScientists have unravelled the genetic make-up of the Neanderthal, the long-faced, barrel-chested relative of modern humans.

Anthropologists analysed more than a billion fragments of ancient DNA plucked from three Croatian fossils to reconstruct a first draft of the Neanderthal genome.

The extraordinary feat gives scientists an unprecedented opportunity to clarify the evolutionary relationship between humans and Neanderthals that may ultimately shed light on the great mystery of how we became the most formidable species on the planet.

Neanderthals were the closest relatives of modern living humans. They lived in Europe and Asia until they became extinct around 30,000 years ago. The reason they died out is not clear, but likely factors are dramatic swings in the climate that affected the availability of food, and competition with early humans.

By comparing the genomes of modern humans with Neanderthals and chimps, scientists hope to unravel the genetic differences that define what it is to be human.

The Neanderthal genome was built up from strands of DNA, most of which came from a 38,000-year-old fossilised leg bone unearthed in a cave in Vindija, Croatia. Other material came from older remains dating back 70,000 years. Together, the fragments make up more than 60% of the Neanderthal genome.

Svante Pääbo, who led the project at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany, said the team would spend the rest of the year analysing the DNA. They will focus on genes linked to modern human evolution, such as FOXP2, which is involved in speech and language.

The draft genome was announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

Two years ago, the same group used the ancient DNA to pinpoint the moment, about 500,000 years ago, when modern humans split from Neanderthals.

The analysis should clear up once and for all the ongoing debate as to whether Neanderthals and modern humans continued to mate with each other after separating along the path of evolution.

Remains of Neanderthals dating back to 400,000 years ago suggest they were proficient at crafting basic tools and weapons and buried their dead. The last Neanderthals died out shortly after Homo sapiens migrated to Europe and settled.

Neanderthals were stocky and well-adapted to a cold climate, with brains that were on average larger than those of modern humans. Some fossil evidence suggests they were occasionally cannibalistic, though they more commonly hunted large animals including horses and mammoths.

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Intrepid treasure-hunters – or archaeological vandals?

odysseyAt 3.30pm on 4 October 1744, the Royal Navy flotilla accompanying HMS Victory caught what was to be their last glimpse of their flagship as it drifted over the horizon in stormy seas off the Channel Islands.

Laden with four tons of Portuguese gold, the pride of the British navy – and direct predecessor to Admiral Nelson’s vessel of the same name – sank with all 1,150 of its crew. Only the shattered remains of its top-mast were found on a Guernsey beach as evidence of its terrible fate.

But yesterday the ability of that majestic and – for its time – technically advanced man-of-war to evoke dreams of vast riches was revived when an American treasure-hunting company announced that it had found the Victory and is planning to salvage its precious cargo from the depths of the English Channel.

Archaeologists accuse the Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration of combining hi-tech surveying methods with commercial ambition. They have also attacked the Ministry of Defence for “indulging in hypocrisy”, after it emerged that the ministry is in negotiations with Odyssey to share the proceeds. If all the bullion being carried by the Victory is recovered, it is estimated that it could be worth as much as £700m.

To its supporters, Odyssey is a reputable, publicly listed company that follows strict archaeological guidelines in a legitimate search for sunken vessels around the globe.

But its detractors, ranging from leading archaeological bodies to the Spanish government, claim the treasure hunters hide behind a veneer of scientific probity as they harness technology to profit from the world’s sunken heritage.

“If Odyssey is allowed to go ahead with this operation, it will cause uproar,” said Mike Williams, a specialist on maritime law at the University of Wolverhampton and secretary of the Nautical Archaeology Society. “There are very hard questions to be answered about whether these sites should be recovered, and in particular whether the British government should be sanctioning that recovery.”

Odyssey is already locked in a bitter legal dispute with the Spanish authorities over 500,000 gold and silver coins recovered from a wreck it has labelled Black Swan, and which Madrid insists is the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a treasure-laden Spanish frigate sunk in 1804.

Odyssey unveiled its latest find at press conferences held simultaneously in London and New York yesterday. It revealed it had recovered a four-ton bronze cannon emblazoned with the crest of George I – a weapon that only the Victory, the last Royal Navy vessel to be armed entirely with bronze guns, was allowed to carry.

The company, which threw a veil of secrecy over its operations after the find last May, claimed the wreck is vulnerable to fishing trawlers and unscrupulous salvagers and that urgent action is therefore needed to recover the remaining 39 cannons, worth at least £30,000 each, and other “items of value”. Odyssey has declined to state whether it has found any of the Portuguese bullion.

Greg Stemm, a former advertising executive who is Odyssey’s CEO, said the value of the goods on board the Victory was secondary to the historical importance of the find: “HMS Victory was the mightiest vessel of the 18th century and the eclectic mix of guns we found on the site will prove essential in further refining our understanding of naval weaponry used during the era.”

Under international law, the wreck and its contents remain the property of the Government. The Independent understands that Odyssey is in negotiations with the Ministry of Defence to strike an agreement on similar lines to a deal signed in 2002 following the discovery of the remains of another Royal Navy gunship, the HMS Sussex, which sank off Gibraltar in 1694 with £300m-worth of gold on board. Under the terms of that deal, Odyssey gets a sliding share of the proceeds from the sale of any recovered property, up to £250m.

But archaeologists and lawyers said yesterday that a similar deal for HMS Victory would amount to the abandonment of Britain’s obligations under Unesco’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, a convention which in 2005 the Government agreed to respect, without formally signing it.

Dr Williams said: “For the Ministry of Defence to now enter into a deal to recover the remains of HMS Victory would be to indulge in hypocrisy.

“The annexe to the convention makes it clear that a site should be left undisturbed wherever possible – as this one has been for 265 years – and that if artefacts are recovered they should not be used for commercial sale. At the same time, there is a public education campaign, funded by the Government, which seeks to tell anyone diving on a wreck never to remove anything from it. If they then exploit the Victory it will mean the complete dilution of that message.”

Odyssey said it was abiding by stringent archaeological guidelines and retained the right to seek financial reward for its work.

Mr Stemm said: “Odyssey, not the taxpayer, spends its own money on the archaeological side of things. Once the entire collection is properly accounted for, it is handed over to the Government. At that point it is up to the Government to decide how to compensate us.”

The company’s stance was defended by Sir Robert Balchin, a direct descendent of Sir John Balchin, a much-revered 18th-century admiral who went down with the Victory in 1744, and who was blamed for sailing the ship on to rocks off Alderney.

The location of the wreck, which is being kept secret, shows that it did not founder because of navigational error.

A former director of St John Ambulance, Sir Robert said: “I can’t tell you what I felt when I saw that cannon. It was as if a piece of not just my family history, but national history, had come alive again. I am very clear that the artefacts that are down there should be brought up from the deep. [They] will add enormously to our knowledge of Britain’s 18th-century navy.”

Odyssey wrecks

Black Swan

A colonial-era galleon discovered in the Atlantic in 2007 with 17 tons of silver and gold coins, which were flown out of Gibraltar to Florida. The Spanish government has since filed a claim that the Black Swan is in fact its own vessel Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, and demanded the return of the treasure. Odyssey disputes the claim.

HMS Sussex

The Royal Navy ship sank off Gibraltar in 1694 with up to 10 tons of gold coins on board, making it one of the most valuable wrecks ever. Odyssey signed a deal with the Government to recover the bullion, but Spain’s authorities have prevented it from returning to the site.

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Hill of Tara nominated to be World Heritage Site

hill_of_taraThe Hill of Tara is among a number of locations which have been nominated for inclusion on a list of possible UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Campaigners against the route of the M3 motorway in Co Meath have joined heritage groups in submitting proposals to an advisory group, set up by Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government John Gormley, to review the list of Irish sites.

The existing tentative nomination list for world heritage sites dates back to 1992 and includes Killarney National Park, the Burren and Clonmacnoise. Deadlines for submissions for inclusion on the revised list closed yesterday.

Tarawatch and the Campaign to Save Tara group have claimed that the Hill of Tara complex qualifies for world heritage status as a natural and cultural landscape of outstanding universal value, due to its unique cultural significance and the extent of the surviving remains. Campaigners believe that if the site is shortlisted as a heritage site, then changes would have to be made to the route of the controversial motorway, which runs close to the hill.

“We’d love it if the whole area was chosen to be a world heritage site, but because of the destruction that has been caused by the work on the M3, there is a worry that it might be refused,” Dr Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, of the Campaign to Save Tara group, said.

Mr Gormley has said previously that he supported the plan to have the Hill of Tara considered as a world heritage site as a means of preventing future development in the vicinity of the site.

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