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Archaeology At Sea
We like the beach and sing Rule Britannia, yet our striking maritime heritage is a dark unknown. George Lambrick reports
The shoals, reefs and treacherous currents of the seas round the British Isles have created an exceptionally rich maritime legacy. Yet conservation of this heritage is a century behind terrestrial archaeology, and as public fascination with it increases, so do the threats.
Shipwrecks are time capsules of the past. Nowhere on land do we get such revealing insights into people’s daily lives or the technology of their day: where else would you find the boxes of long bows found on the Mary Rose? Britain is a trading nation and former world sea power. Seafaring is a key part of our identity and has bestowed a heritage of global significance.
Wrecks, however, are not the whole story. The seas of north west Europe are also internationally important for submerged prehistoric landscapes. Over 10,000 years ago you could have walked from Hull to Copenhagen. Well-preserved Mesolithic sites have been discovered recently off Tynemouth and in the Solent. There are drowned Bronze Age field systems in the Scilly Isles. The ritual oak timbers of Seahenge, the submerged forests of the Severn estuary and the wonderful prehistoric footprints of humans and animals going about their daily business in Morecambe Bay, are all examples of once dry land prehistory preserved between the tides. Such finds provide exceptional insights into prehistoric communities, and long-term changes in climate and sea-levels.
As on land, ‘portable antiquities’ add to the picture. If you find a wreck (the legal definition includes lost objects, as well as craft such as ships and planes), you have to report to the Receiver of Wreck at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in Southampton. After an amnesty announced two years ago, people came forward with 30,000 previously unreported objects of historical and archaeological interest.
Underwater archaeology can make compelling viewing on TV, and generate international media interest. Through a wide variety of activities, specialists do much to promote wider public understanding, interest and participation. National diving associations and the Receiver of Wreck encourage a responsible ‘look don’t touch’ policy, and sports divers make a real contribution to monitoring sites through the ‘Protect a Wreck’ scheme.
Natural erosion, of course, threatens this heritage, but increasingly the dangers are human-made. Wind farms, pipelines, cables, port developments, channel dredging, aggregate extraction, salvage and deep trawl fishing can all cause damage. Several protected wrecks of 18th century warships in the English Channel are known to be at risk from erosion and human disturbance. Dutch fishermen land 20 tonnes of mammal bones per year, some of them with butchery marks, indicating the scouring of submerged prehistoric land surfaces.
The protection afforded to wrecks is equivalent to provision under the original 1882 Ancient Monuments Act, concerned with dry land and long since strengthened. Beleaguered fishermen, unlike farmers, have no CAP conservation incentives. Legislation is mostly aimed at safeguarding commercial interests or national security. Provision for conservation is a mess.
There is a fundamental need for basic survey. Using modern technology the British Geological Survey has begun to scan the seabed at sufficient resolution to reveal detailed information, but they have funds to cover only about 1% of UK waters. Maritime archaeology is where terrestrial archaeology was in the early 20th century, before air photography and the mapping by Ordnance Survey archaeologists.
Out of an estimated total shipping loss in UK waters of a few hundred thousand, and around 50,000 recorded wrecks, only 5,200 have been positively identified and about 70 are protected (mostly under the Protection of Wrecks Act). British law (unlike Denmark’s) does not concern itself with drowned terrestrial deposits.
Although the Crown Estate (as ‘owner’ of the seabed) has made some preliminary steps in GIS mapping, there is no integrated marine recording like the terrestrial planning system.
Government departments responsible for maritime issues include Culture, Environment, Defence, Transport, Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs and Treasury. Not surprisingly, there is no common conservation policy. The Sussex fiasco is symptomatic.
In 2002 the Ministry of Defence contracted with Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Florida-based private salvage company, to recover huge amounts of gold bullion from HMS Sussex, who sank off Gibraltar in 1694. Few were convinced by arguments that this was anything more than a scramble to get rich. Apart from the historic interest of the wreck, all but two of the 500 soldiers and sailors aboard were lost: she is a significant war grave. The Spanish government objected, and Carlos Leon, a Spanish marine archaeologist, said ‘Let’s not fool ourselves. This is not an archaeological expedition … This is gold fever’.
Arrangements over the Sussex are still being finalised. Meanwhile, Odyssey have been busy recovering bullion from the SS Republic, a deep sea civil war wreck off the US coast, and have just let contracts to numismatic specialists to prepare the large quantities of gold coins of varied dates and denominations for the market. The coins are said to include ‘classic rarities as well as condition-census or finest-known items’.
If all this seems to be at a pretty low ebb, there is some hope for a turn in the tide. In November the UK Government became the first party to an international agreement which recognises the Titanic and her environment as a memorial to those who perished, and a historic wreck of exceptional importance. The agreement requires any investigation of the Titanic to be licensed, makes it a criminal offence to sell objects and gives powers of arrest to naval officers and other authorities to prevent illicit work on the wreck.
In December, the CBA, English Heritage and the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee gave evidence to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs inquiry into the Marine Environment. Amongst other things stressed to the select committee was the need for more principled consistency in policy, noting the differences in approach to the Titanic and the Sussex.
With a new review of maritime heritage legislation by DCMS, increasing pressure for proper marine spatial planning, and environmental assessment becoming compulsory, 2004 could prove to be a turning point for maritime archaeology.
The marine environment inquiry evidence transcript is at
Lambrick is director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005