About the Author
Neil Brodie is Director of Cultural Heritage Resource, Stanford University Archaeology Center
On October 7, 2002 the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had reached agreement with the US company Odyssey Marine Exploration to “conduct further archaeological exploration” of the wreck of the 17th century warship HMS Sussex, which is believed to have foundered off the coast of Gibraltar during a severe storm in 1694. The MoD was keen to emphasize that the project would be “conducted under recognized and accepted methodologies”, though no details were provided, and that the partnership would extend to the “eventual conservation, publication, exhibition, marketing” of artifacts. One day earlier, Odyssey had also announced the partnership, again highlighting “the archaeological excavation and conservation of artifacts and cargo”. Both press releases also made low-key mention of the fact that the wreck might contain tons of gold coins. The full text of the agreement revealed that if what were called “artifacts” (presumably gold coins) with a total monetary value of anything up to $45 million were recovered then sale proceeds would be split 20:80 in Odyssey’s favor; between $445 million and $500 million and the split would be 50:50; anything above $500 million and it would be 60:40 to the British government.
The agreement was not in direct contravention of British law, though it was against the spirit of legislation such as the 1996 Treasure Act and the Valletta Convention on Protection of the Archaeological Heritage which was ratified by the United Kingdom in 1999. It caused widespread archaeological protest within the United Kingdom, as it seemingly opened the door for what were perceived to be international treasure hunters to exploit archaeological heritage. The British government responded to archaeological concerns by ensuring better archaeological representation on the project, and in August 2003 Odyssey announced that it had appointed the British archaeological company Gifford and Partners Ltd to provide archaeological oversight.
The project commenced in December 2005 with a survey conducted by a remotely-operated-vehicle and some limited trial excavations (Cunningham Dobson et al. 2009). A large amount of modern contamination was reported, at least 17 iron cannon and two anchors were identified, and a concentration of stones was provisionally interpreted as ballast. No gold coins were reported, though the excavation trenches were intended to investigate the ships hull rather than its cargo and a significant part of the ship still lies buried and remains to be excavated.
Work at the site stopped in January 2006 at the request of Spanish authorities. In March 2007, the Spanish and British governments agreed that the project should proceed with the participation of Spanish archaeologists.
Cunningham Dobson, Neil, Hawk Tolson et al. 2009. The HMS Sussex shipwreck project (Site E-82): preliminary report. (Odyssey papers 1). Odyssey Marine Exploration. Available at: http://shipwreck.net/pdf/OMEPapers1-SussexShipwreckProject.pdf.