Very Old Treasures - Her Majesty Ship Sussex
The HMS Sussex may not be the most valuable shipwreck in history...
One February day in 1694, the bloated body of a British admiral washed up on the limestone shores of Gibraltar, clad in only his nightshirt.
Francis Wheeler had been at the helm of the HMS Sussex, an 80-gun warship that was leading the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean to battle the French in the War of the League of Augsburg.
But just one night out of Gibraltar, a tempest swept up off the North African coast, tossing the newly christened ship in a violent easterly wind. With the ship heading straight for the rocky Spanish coast, the captain desperately tried tacking into the wind.
But he could not prevent the sea from rushing into the gun ports. The Sussex, along with 12 others in the fleet, sank half a mile to the ocean floor.
Only two men lived to tell of the catastrophe. And it was not until centuries later that the full story of the Sussex came to light.
In 1995, a researcher uncovered papers revealing that the admiral had been on a secret mission: He was carrying 1 million pounds sterling to deliver to the duke of Savoy, an ally of Britain, to keep him from folding to French bribes.
Today, those gold and silver coins are worth up to a billion dollars, making the Sussex potentially the most valuable shipwreck in the world.
This fall, the commercial salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration is set to begin the first excavation of the Sussex.
The dig will be the deepest ever of a colonial ship, and it may yield the largest hoard of marine treasures in history. But perhaps more important for the future of shipwreck exploration, it is the first of its kind to be done in partnership with a federal government.
Under a novel agreement, the British government is giving Odyssey permission for the dig; in return, Odyssey will pay for the project, split the booty with the government, and give the government first dibs on artifacts for study or display.
A year in the making, the contract addresses a stubborn philosophical rift between academic archaeologists and commercial salvors.
Archaeologists contend that profit seekers can't be trusted to protect precious artifacts and that wrecks should be left undisturbed as underwater museums. 'Commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage.
'says the International Council of Monuments and Sites, 'is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and management of the heritage.'
Graveyard. Yet, sunken ships are hardly a scarce commodity. There are more than 3 million shipwrecks littering the ocean floor, the United Nations estimates, and many are deteriorating fast. 'When was the last time you dropped a screwdriver in the ocean and found it a week later ?'
asks Pat Clyne of Mel Fisher Enterprises, a salvage company. 'I mean, was it in perfect condition? The ocean has a way of returning things back to nature. So . . . preservation in situ . . . makes no sense whatsoever.'
Greg Stemm, the cofounder of Odyssey, believes that differences between commercial salvagers and archaeologists can be overcome. The equation is simple: The archaeologists know shipwrecks, and the commercial salvagers have the money and the equipment to excavate them.
Just finding a wreck like the Sussex, says Stemm, requires the kind of money public institutions typically aren't willing to spend.The search for the Sussex began in 1995, when an anonymous researcher approached Odyssey with an ancient and intriguing letter.
It was from the French diplomat to Italy, informing his government of the disaster: 'The Admiral Ship of England . . . was lost in the storm. . . . There was on the ship a million Piastres of which 800,000 were for the Duke of Savoy . . . .' Researchers began canvassing English, Spanish, and American archives for more information; confident the document was authentic, they turned their search to the sea.
Odyssey explorers combed 400 square miles of the Mediterranean, using side-scan sonar, bathymetric surveys, and remotely operated vehicles.
Out of 418 possible targets--including some wrecks over 2,000 years old--they discovered only one with cannons, a distinguishing feature of the Sussex. Ten years and more than $1 million later, they had found their spot.
Odyssey's agreement with the British government is notable for the degree of archaeological rigor it demands. Among other provisions, the company must keep a team of government-appointed archaeological observers on board.
Odyssey will keep 80 percent of any treasure proceeds under $45 million, 50 percent of everything between $45 million and $500 million, and 40 percent of any returns above $500 million. Or it could end up with nothing.
Pot of gold. In their willingness to take that risk, the Odyssey researchers join a long line of starry-eyed explorers, from weekend amateurs scouring the Great Lakes to controversial pioneers like Mel Fisher, who kicked off a treasure-hunting boom with his discovery in 1985 of a Spanish galleon bearing about 300,000 silver coins.
It is fair to say that the practices of some of these early salvagers were far from archaeologically sound. But the balance has swung, says Ken Vrana, an archaeologist with for-profit Admiralty Corp.
'Now most corporations, at least those that are publicly traded or high profile, know that they better be doing their work according to archaeological best practices . . . or they're not going to survive in the long term.'
Still, there are no regulations governing archaeological practices in international waters. In 2001, 87 countries ratified proposals 'to protect the underwater cultural heritage . . . increasingly threatened by pillage and destruction.' But, because of disputes between developing countries and important maritime nations, they failed to give the measures the force of law.
Many government officials say that commercial salvors should play a role in excavating marine treasures. 'We . . . are not against someone making an honest dollar . . .,' says Robert Blumberg of the State Department.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which recently helped protect the HMS Titanic site, is also encouraging partnerships between salvors and archaeologists. 'Private commercial ventures are the potential for the future,' says Ole Varmer, a NOAA general counsel. 'And instead of continuing to fight with them, let's see where we can build bridges.'
... June 2007 - Lot of articles has been written since... Odyssey explorers found a huge treasure hoard, most probably the biggest ever, worth US$ 500 millions of gold and silver coins.
Does it come from the Sussex or another treasure wreck the Merchand Royal lost off Land's End, England ? No one knows yet.... But dispute are arising for the ownership of the incredible mass of treasure... 17 tons !!!