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HMS Victory Human Skull Silver Rush Pt 3 Feb 2013When is an excavation not an excavation?  A human skull and ships planking on HMS Victory 1744 shown in the documentary “Silver Rush” aka “Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt”
[Fair Use for the purpose of commentary and critical comment]


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As Defence Secretary Michael Fallon takes the few days left before Parliament rises for the General Election, to decide whether to reinstate permission for the controversial recovery of artifacts from the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744 by Odyssey Marine Exploration, the UK Government’s position on the controversial salvage appears increasingly shambolic as two senior Ministers of State appeared to contradict each other in simultaneous Parliamentary Written Answers.  The confusion has led to accusations that Defence Minister Anna Soubry may have misled Parliament by claiming that there have been no excavations on the wreck site of the lost flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen.

Asked by Shadow Minister for Defence Kevan Jones MP

“…what steps his Department has taken to investigate whether the unauthorised work to excavate the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744 represents a breach of the Deed of Gift for HMS Victory 1744.”

Defence Minister Anna Soubry answered

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“There has been no excavation at the wreck site of HMS VICTORY 1744 nor artefacts recovered by the Maritime Heritage Foundation or Odyssey Marine Exploration since the Deed of Gift was signed in January 2012. However regular site surveys have been conducted, and reports provided to the Government. There has, therefore, been no breach of the Deed of Gift.”


However, when Mr Jones asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] which oversees the regulatory body for marine works, the Marine Management Organisation [MMO]

“…whether the preparation of cannon for lifting and the dusting of mobile sediments on the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744 by Odyssey Marine Exploration in the summer of 2012 was included in the Marine Management Organisation investigation into unauthorised work on the HMS Victory 1744 wreck site.”

DEFRA Minister of State George Eustace answered

“…the investigation carried out by the MMO into the carrying out of licensed marine activities also obtained evidence of dusting of mobile sediments and other preparatory activities which would have required a marine licence, when there was in fact no such licence in place.”

Mr Eustace’s answer appears to confirm that the work described by Maritime Heritage Foundation Chair, Lord Lingfield in an e-mail to Mr Simon Routh of the Ministry of Defence on 21 July 2012, had actually taken place and was in breach of the Marine and Coastal Access Act [2009].


In the July 2012 e-mail, which was released under the Freedom of Information Act, Lord Lingfield stated

“…as approved by the MHF Scientific Advisory Committee, a pre-disturbance survey and study of the site is ongoing which includes dusting of mobile surface sediments in different areas in order to determine the boundaries of cultural materials on the site. Areas outside the main site are also being investigated to determine whether they are associated with the shipwreck or not and the cannon that are offsite and those considered most at risk, including those that have been obviously been recently damaged or dragged  are being recorded and prepared for lifting…”


dusting” to reveal cultural material is both excavation in its own right and part of an excavation process and it could easily be regarded as disingenuous in the extreme to pretend it is not

To an archaeologist “excavation” underwater can take many forms from the dusting away of silt to reveal an artifact, to trenching using water dredges and the recovery of objects large and small.  A range of tasks which Odyssey Marine Exploration is well equipped to do, as the web site of Odyssey’s employer, the Maritime Heritage Foundation [ http://www.victory1744.org/ ] makes clear in its section on the plans for the HMS Victory 1744 recovery.  This states that Odyssey’s primary seabed research and excavation tool, the Remotely Operated Vehicle [ROV] “Zeus” carries

“…a venturi-pump operated sediment removal system for gentle dusting and stratigraphic excavation,”

Given that capability experts consulted by thePipeLine describe the activities outlined by Lord Lingfield in his e-mail as a systematic process of preliminary excavation in order to define the extent of the HMS Victory 1744 site by identifying artifacts and elements of the ship’s structure.

In his answer Mr Eustace also referred to “…other preparatory activities” which can be taken to be the preparation of the cannon for lifting, as well as the deposition of underwater experiments described in an Odyssey Marine Exploration report, which another Freedom of Information Act request has shown, was highlighted and used as evidence by the MMO investigators. The same archaeological experts also suggested that a standard method for preparing a cannon for lifting would involve excavation around the barrel to free the weapon from the seabed and the possible fixing of lifting strops or moving of cannon to a single location for lifting.

Thus “dusting” to reveal cultural material is both excavation in its own right and part of an excavation process and it could easily be regarded as disingenuous in the extreme to pretend it is not.   They also point out that the television programme “Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt” shown on Channel Five in January 2013 appeared to show elements of the ship’s structure and an apparently recently exposed human skull which the programme claimed to have been uncovered in the late Summer of 2012, but which appear never to have been officially reported by Odyssey in their publications.  Such finds would be consistent with the kind of material which would be exposed in the type of activity described by Lord Lingfield.


  the prior consent of the Secretary of State for Defence is required before any intrusive excavation work

The Deed of Gift by which the Maritime Heritage Foundation took over management of the HMS Victory 1744 wreck site in January 2012 is explicit that the prior consent of the Secretary of State for Defence is required before any intrusive excavation work is undertaken and it is known that no such consent was in place at the time the work reported by Lord Lingfield and confirmed by Mr Eustace took place.  If follows that either Lord Lingfield’s original e-mail was an invention and Mr Eustace was wrong in his answer, thus misleading Parliament and undermining the whole evidential basis of the Marine Management Organisation’s official written warning letter to Odyssey Marine Exploration issued in November 2014.  A situation which might leave the Government liable in any proceeding Odyssey might bring for damage to its reputation.  Or Mr Eustace has confirmed the excavation work described in Lord Lingfield’s e-mail did actually take place, not to mention the “other preparatory work” which was never authorised by the Secretary of State and so was almost certainly a breach of the Deed of Gift and was clearly found to be in breach of the Marine and Coastal Access Act.  That being the case the inevitable conclusion is that, at best, Ms Soubry was badly briefed by her Civil Servants as to what had actually occurred on the HMS Victory 1744 wreck site in the late Summer of 2012.  At worst she knowingly misled Parliament by stating there had been no excavation when there clearly had been an excavation of both areas of the site and of at least some of HMS Victory’s battery of bronze cannon to prepare them for a salvage which the Secretary of State had not yet even authorised and which was thus incontrovertibly in breach of the Deed of Gift.


“I can’t understand why the MOD is behaving like this.” 

This apparently dysfunctional response to these latest questions about HMS Victory 1744, which has seen two of the Government Departments most closely involved offering uncoordinated and apparently contradictory accounts of the same events, makes it even more likely that even if Mr Fallon were to reinstate permission for the HMS Victory recovery by Odyssey/MHF the Ministry of Defence would immediately be hit by another application for Judicial Review, with the discovery process now also taking in all the correspondence and evidence held by DEFRA and the MMO.

Any review would also seek to find out how the MOD came to allow the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Maritime Heritage Foundation to so clearly exceed its authority by authorising work it had no right to authorise without the prior consent of the Secretary of State, while supposedly under the Chairmanship of the renowned Maritime Archaeologist Dr Margaret Rule, and having the advantage of the advice of the specialist consultant to the MHF and Odyssey, Dr Sean Kingsley of Wreck Watch International.

As one Westminster based observer of the HMS Victory controversy told thePipeLine.

“I can’t understand why the MOD is behaving like this.”

They added that the MOD’s stance was also bad politics as any new team of Ministers which might take over the Department after the General Election could have some very interesting reading in the departmental files and some very uncomfortable questions for the Ministers and Civil Servants involved.

This morning Mr Fallon was touring the TV and radio studios in his other role as “Minister for the “Today” programme” in an attempt to firefight Prime Minister David Cameron’s gaffe of yesterday where he appeared to announce the start of the Tory Leadership Race to succeed him after a second term as Prime Minister, when he has yet to win the General Election due in just over a month’s time. Something a senior Tory described to the Guardian newspaper as an “Oh Fuck” moment.  A thought which might be echoed in the Ministry of Defence as Ministers and Civil Servants contemplate the possible consequences of Mr Eustace and Ms Soubry failing to get their stories straight.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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