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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‘Oldest human brain’ discovered

iron_age_brain

Archaeologists have found the remains of what could be Britain’s oldest surviving human brain.

The team, excavating a York University site, discovered a skull containing a yellow substance which scans showed to be shrunken, but brain-shaped.

Brains consist of fatty tissue which microbes in the soil would absorb, so neurologists believe the find could be some kind of fossilised brain.

The skull was found in an area first farmed more than 2,000 years ago.  More tests will now be done to establish what it is actually made of.

The team from York Archaeological Trust had been commissioned by the university to carry out an exploratory dig at Heslington East, where campus extension work is under way.  The skull was discovered in an area of extensive prehistoric farming landscape of fields, trackways and buildings dating back to at least 300 BC.

Preservation

The archaeologists believe the skull, which was found on its own in a muddy pit, may have been a ritual offering. It was taken to the University of York where CT scans were used to look at the skull’s contents.  Philip Duffey, the consultant neurologist who carried out the scans, said the find was “amazing”.

“It’s exciting that scanning has shown structures which appear to be unequivocally of brain origin. “I think that it will be very important to establish how these structures have survived, whether there are traces of biological material within them and, if not, what is their composition.”

He added: “This could be the equivalent of a fossil. The brain itself would generally not survive. Fatty tissues would be feasted on by microbes.

“This isn’t like the remains found in bogs; it doesn’t have any skin on the skull or any tissue remains elsewhere.

“There is something unusual in the way the brain has been treated, or something that it’s been exposed to that has preserved the shape of it.”

TB victim

Dr Sonia O’Connor, research fellow in archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford added: “The survival of brain remains where no other soft tissues are preserved is extremely rare.

“This brain is particularly exciting because it is very well preserved, even though it is the oldest recorded find of this type in the UK, and one of the earliest worldwide.”

The find is the second major discovery during investigations at the site.

Earlier this year, a team from the university’s department of archaeology unearthed a shallow grave containing the skeleton of a man believed to be one of Britain’s earliest victims of tuberculosis.  Radiocarbon dating suggests that the man died in the fourth century, the late-Roman period. The vice-chancellor of the University of York, Professor Brian Cantor, said: “The skull is another stunning discovery and its further study will provide us with incomparable insights into life in the Iron Age.”

Specialists now hope to carry out further tests on the skull to establish how it has survived for so long, and perhaps more about the person whose brain it was.

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2,000-year-old Roman body found in West Sussex

A 2,000-year-old body has been uncovered in North Bersted. The rare find has excited archaeologists who have labeled the discovery as being of international importance.

The skeleton is believed to have been a warrior who died around the time of the Roman invasion of England in AD43. He is likely to have been a prince or rich person of some status because of the quantity and quality of goods found with his remains.

Dr Steve Ford, a director of Thames Valley Archaeological Services, said the site had yielded secrets beyond compare anywhere in this country.

Of particular interest were two highly decorated bronze latticework sheets. These were probably used to cover a shield.

“There is no comparison for this metalwork that we know of,” said Dr Fox. “It might well be unique. It’s a very intricate piece of work for its time.

Professor Barry Cunliffe, the professor of European archaeology at Oxford University, visited the site when he was in Chichester and said he knew of nothing like this metalwork.

“The provisional date of the burial from the associated pottery indicates that it took place either at the end of the Late Iron Age or just into the Roman period, perhaps around 40-60AD.”

“The Iron Age people of this age were in essence pro-Roman and the Emperor Claudius launched an invasion, initially, to restore the local king Verica to his throne. The deceased may have been one of the local ruling caste, proud to be buried with his Roman goods.”

The grave of the oldest body ever found around the Bognor Regis area was unearthed by archaeologists who have been given time to explore what lies underneath the surface of farmland before it is covered by housing.

Allowing the dig is a condition of the planning permission granted by Arun District Council to the developers, Berkeley Homes and Persimmon Homes, before they use the land for 650 homes and part of the Bognor northern relief road.

The requirements of the dig have been set out by the county council’s archaeologist, Mark Taylor. The digging has been based north of North Bersted Street. The discovery of the grave was made a few weeks ago but it has been kept under wraps until now to allow the valuable metalwork and the body to be removed to safety for detailed examination and away from the unwanted attention of illegal prospectors.

Digging has been going on for several months. Dr Ford said the isolated burial was the main point of interest of the work. It was found just 40cms, or 16ins, below the surface.

“The deceased, a mature male more than 30 years old, was laid out in a grave and was accompanied by grave goods.”

“These comprised three large pottery jars placed at the end of the grave, presumably containing offerings to the gods or food for the journey into the afterlife, an iron knife and several items made of bronze.

“One appears to be a helmet and the other a shield boss. Also present are two latticework sheets highly decorated, perhaps used to cover a shield.

“The burial and its grave goods seem to have been placed in a large coffin or casket bound by iron hoops with an iron-framed structure place on top,” he explained.

The bronze objects have been lifted in blocks of soil by a specialist conservator for careful examination and conservation in a laboratory before they are studied in detail.

The North Bersted burial shared similarities with famous graves of the Late Iron Age in places such as Welwyn Garden City, St Albans and Colchester. All of them were graves of princes or chiefs, or possibly priests, he added.

Also revealed in the excavations were revealed Bronze Age boundary ditches and occupation, a small hoard of four Middle Bronze Age bronze axes, or palstaves, an Iron Age roundhouse and a Roman building set among fields.

Article retrieved from Littlehampton Gazette features a video too.

Mass grave in the centre of Oxford

Archaeologists now believe a dozen skeletons discovered in a mass grave in the centre of Oxford may have belonged to executed criminals from Saxon times.

A team of three archaeologists have been digging in the quadrangle of St John’s College in Blackhall Road, off St Giles, for nearly two weeks since the discovery was made.

The bones of 12 or 13 bodies have gradually been uncovered after a body part was discovered 80cm below ground level by diggers excavating the plot before a new quadrangle is built.

City archaeologists have labelled the find the most exciting in Oxford for nearly half a century, and predict more bodies could be found in the area.

But they cannot date the corpses exactly because the bodies were stripped of clothing before they were thrown into the mass grave.

Sean Wallis, project manager for Thames Valley Archaeological Services, said: “We were expecting to find evidence of Medieval activity, but we did not picture to find any bodies.

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“They look as if they were all young men in their late teens, and we are looking at Saxon times.

“We originally thought they could be Roman but now we think it could be more recent, based on the condition of the bodies, which survived very well.

“We have no idea how many we will find – they are still popping up.”

The archaeologists’ job has been made more difficult by the fact the bodies have been thrown on top of one another, rather than laid out neatly like a Christian burial.

Mr Wallis said: “It looks like a mass grave.

“The bodies have been chucked in, and it doesn’t look as though there was a pit dug deliberately.

“They could be executed criminals or they could be battle victims. Some of it does look grisly. It doesn’t look as if they met a particularly nice end.

“It is exciting. I’ve been digging for 10 years and I’ve not found anything close to this.”

Brian Durham, Oxford City Council‘s archaeologist, said: “This is certainly rare. I haven’t seen anything like it in the 40 years I’ve been digging in the city.

“The idea that they might be battle victims is possible, but I think we will only know that if we start finding war wounds on them as they remove them. They are all males of fighting age so it makes sense.”

He said the 12m by 3m spot could have been some sort of memorial, and added: “These people’s bodies were stored somewhere else until they had decayed a bit, and then buried quite roughly.

“There are limbs lying on their own, but they are whole limbs.

“There were occasions when young men might have got chopped up. There are a couple of occasions when Oxford was beseiged and it is a possibility they could be casualties of battle.”

Original article title “Experts bone up on grisly relicsby OXFORD MAIL’S George Hamilton

Sutton Hoo

300px-ship_med.jpg In the 7th century AD, a King – it was surely no less – received a magnificent burial at Sutton Hoo, in East Anglia. A ship was hauled up from the river, a burial chamber was erected in the middle of it, and a stupendous collection of magnificent objects – gold and silver brooches and dishes, the sword of state, drinking horns and a lyre – was set in the burial chamber. Fortunately, grave robbers never discovered the tomb, until in 1939 archaeologists stumbled upon what is still the greatest ‘treasure’ ever discovered in this country.helmet.jpg

The excavations in 1939 revealed a magnificent ship burial. However the excavations took place under the shadow of war, and had to be hurriedly concluded. However the great barrow that covered the ship did not stand alone. It was merely the largest mound in a cemetery of 19 mounds and numerous other burials, and in the 1980s, a new excavation was launched to reveal the rest of the cemetery.

Taken from Current Archaeology

READ MORE at:

800px-suttonhoopurselidrobroy.jpgNational Trust

Sutton Hoo Society

Wikipedia

BOOKS OF INTEREST

Sutton Hoo

The Age of Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial