HMS Sussex: Waiting on sunken treasure worth billions


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Posted by CDNN on May 26, 2005 at 16:07:01:

http://www.cdnn.info/news/industry/i050522.html

HMS Sussex: Waiting on sunken treasure worth billions
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GIBRALTAR (22 May 2005) -- The British warship HMS Sussex, lost in a storm off Gibraltar in 1694 with billions of dollars worth of gold bullion and 500 seamen, will have to stay lost a little longer.

Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, which was poised this spring to start archaeological and treasure recovery work on what it believes to be the more than 300-year-old shipwreck, has put the project on hold after last-minute objections from Andalusia.

The Spanish region's government, despite prior central government approval of the project, last month sent its Guardia Civil patrols to board Odyssey's research vessel and now demands a say-so in one of the most anticipated --- and controversial --- deep-water excavations ever planned.

Odyssey, eager to stay on good terms with anyone claiming maritime interests in the shipwreck-rich Mediterranean, announced last week that it would concentrate on five other "high-value targets" until things are ironed out with Andalusia's department of culture.

"We'd all like to see the Sussex project move ahead, but we have other projects that could prove as valuable," says Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm. He says the company plans to return to the Sussex later in the year.

The ease with which the firm has shifted operations to other sites is a testimonial to how many potentially lucrative shipwrecks litter the floor of the Mediterranean, and how successful the firm's advanced deep-water search technology has been in locating them.

The sudden snag in the Sussex project, after years of preparation, also provides a glimpse of the political and emotional gulf that divides those who seek treasure in the deep ocean floor and those who see it as a repository of maritime history.

Odyssey, which last year recovered 51,000 gold and silver coins and thousands of other artifacts from the Civil War-era wreck of the SS Republic off the Georgia coast, claims that it serves both goals: raising saleable artifacts that it says have little value to archaeology and items of unique cultural importance for preservation and exhibit.

The total value of the Republic operation has yet to be determined, but with two ships in its fleet and a third under lease, Odyssey has set out to become the leading for-profit shipwreck exploration company in the world.

Archeologists fear such ambitions are no idle boast. Although there are an estimated 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks worldwide, archaeologists say advanced deep-water technology such as Odyssey's side-scan sonar and deep-divingrobots Latest News about Robots will expose these cultural "time capsules" to commercial exploitation.

"The problem is that salvage operations are driven by time and money, not by what can be learned from the wreck" says Robert Neyland, the chief archaeologist for the U.S. Navy, who headed recovery of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. "Commercial salvage and archaeology are not compatible."

Although the "finders keepers" principle applies to most shipwrecks in international waters, archaeologists have taken some consolation in the fact that the rights to "sovereign" vessels like the Sussex are retained by the country under whose flag they sailed, wherever they sank.

But to the horror of British archaeologists, Odyssey has struck a first-of-a-kind deal with the British defense ministry that provides a sliding scale for the division of treasure, the conservation of artifacts, and the sale of media rights.

Because the Sussex, the flagship of a 13-ship fleet, sank while it was carrying a vast sum of money and six tons of gold intended to assure the loyalty of the Duke of Savoy to England in the war with France, both parties to the agreement could wind up with billions.

George Lambrick, director of the Council for British Archaeology, calls the deal "a blatant piece of heritage asset stripping" that will "legitimize commercial treasure hunting for financial rewards on a grand scale."

The British government would get 60 percent of any take over $500 million. "This deal would not have been struck if millions --- perhaps billions --- of dollars were not at stake," Limbrick says.

"With its eye firmly on booty not culture, it looks as if the government is reneging on the basic principles of archaeological management that it has championed elsewhere," he says.

At least on the surface, the deal is at odds with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, a 2001 international agreement that has yet to be ratified. It states that "underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited."

Lambrick says he's concerned that the Sussex agreement will set "a dangerous precedent for the exploitation of wrecks in other waters" from 2,000-year-old Roman galleys in the Mediterranean to treasure-laden Spanish galleons in the Gulf of Mexico.

When it comes to sunken treasure, the glimmer of gold --- like the will of a rich uncle --- has a way of bringing potential heirs out of the woodwork. Odyssey, for instance, last year paid $1.6 million to Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co. , which had insured a portion of the SS Republic's cargo a century and a half ago --- to resolve its claim to the wreck.

With a formal agreement from Great Britain in hand and the approval of the project by the Spanish government, the only remaining obstacles to the Sussex project appeared to be technical ones.

Then the mouse roared. Andalusian authorities contend that it's possible a British flagship sailing through the straits of Gibraltar on its way to France in 1694 just might have had something that belonged to Spain on board.

Or perhaps because of the wreck's proximity to Spain, it's not the Sussex at all, but a Spanish vessel.

And even though the wreck lies outside territorial waters in what Spain has designated "an adjacent area," Andalusia insists that it, too, must approve the project --- perhaps in return for a small share of the take.




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