Friday, July 16, 2004

A controversial seventeenth-century shipwreck

The Guardian reports on a British shipwreck believed to contain untold riches, which is about to be excavated by a commercial American company, with the proceeds to be shared between the company, Odyssey, and the British government.

"The Sussex, an 80-gun British warship sank with 12 vessels from its merchant fleet in tumultuous storms in 1694 while on a secret diplomatic mission for King William III." It - sorry, she - sank in the Straits of Gibraltar. If it is the Sussex (even this seems to be a matter of some controversy), it may contain "10 tonnes of bullion and precious coins worth up to £2.4bn today". Wheesh. No wonder little things like archaeologists' worries that the excavation amounts to little more than "looting" and "asset-stripping" aren't going to be allowed to get in the way. (The money, if it is there, was intended to bribe a French ally in Britain's wars against France. The disaster may have been a factor in the establishment of the Bank of England.)

The project's chief archaeologist is (naturally) stoutly defending the professionalism of the project. English Heritage views it as "a test case of how professionally firms like Odyssey can retrieve coins and artefacts". Well, another good test case might be the excavation that the firm is currently carrying out on a nineteenth-century US paddle steamer in Georgia. An American archaeologist commenting on that one points out that it isn't just about the excavation itself: "Field work and recovery are the fun part... It's the years of analysis and conservation and preparation of a detailed report that usually trip people up. It's hard to get the commitment of time and funds to do all those things." Archaeology is destructive by its very nature; it's the careful recording and analysis (of all the little mundane things in their context, not just the glistening valuable ones) that justifies the disruption and destruction. Is that really going to happen here?

There are a few 'ifs' and some 'maybes' in the way: the deal doesn't quite seem to have been finalised, it might not be the Sussex, it might not be that full of gold. Oh, and the Spanish may not be happy about it. But this could be one hell of a story.

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