The Ministry of Defence is facing a legal battle and parliamentary questions after letting a US company excavate a British 18th-century warship laden with a potentially lucrative cargo.
Lord Renfrew is among leading archaeologists condemning a deal struck over HMS Victory, considered the world’s mightiest ship when she sank in the Channel in 1744.
In return for excavating the vessel’s historic remains, which may include gold and silver worth many millions of pounds, Odyssey Marine Exploration is entitled to receive “a percentage of the recovered artefacts’ fair value” or “artefacts in lieu of cash”.
Lord Renfrew, a Cambridge academic, said: “That is against the Unesco convention, in particular against the annexe, which states that underwater cultural heritage may not be sold off or exploited for commercial gain. Odyssey is a commercial salvager. It’s not clear that payment could be obtained other than by the sale of the artefacts which are raised – which, of course, is how Odyssey has operated in the past. To raise artefacts simply for sale would be regarded by most responsible archaeologists as plundering.”
Two bronze guns have already been recovered from the wreck and sold to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, funded out of the MoD’s grant.
The archaeologists accuse the MoD of dereliction of duty in passing responsibility for the wreck to the Maritime Heritage Foundation (MHF), a charitable trust “which appears to have no financial, archaeological or management resources” while embarking on a project “that will cost millions”.
Archaeologists are determined to halt the excavation and are taking advice from maritime lawyers. The issue was raised by the All-party Parliamentary Archaeology Group.
An Odyssey spokeswoman said that the MHF will work with an advisory group including representatives from the MoD and English Heritage, “to ensure that best archaeological practices are adopted in line with the annexe”.
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