Experts take legal advice in effort to block lucrative deal on underwater excavation of HMS Victory
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 financial deal struck over HMS Victory, considered the world’s mightiest ship when she sank in a storm in the English 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 for £50,000, funded out of the MoD’s grant. Lord Renfrew said: “It sounds as if a national museum was paying for cannons which are already owned by the nation.”
Unesco also states that the gifting of a wreck requires those undertaking archaeological work to have adequate resources. The archaeologists accuse the MoD of dereliction of duty in passing responsibility for this historic 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”. They complain that MHF entered into a contract with Odyssey, “a listed US business seeking a financial return for its shareholders” which “relies on selling artefacts… to finance archaeological work”. Ironically, the MoD originally rejected Odyssey’s direct offer to excavate.