Oceans Odyssey 2: underwater heritage management & deep-sea shipwrecks in the English Channel & Atlantic Ocean edited by Greg Stemm and Sean Kingsley (eds), 13 Contributors 354 pp., 514 mostly colour illustrations, 5 maps, 20 tables, 5 ‘pie’ charts Oxbow Books, 10 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford OX1 2EW, 2010, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-1842174425
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 239–241, March 2013
How to Cite
O'Keefe, P. J. (2013), Oceans Odyssey 2: underwater heritage management & deep-sea shipwrecks in the English Channel & Atlantic Ocean edited by Greg Stemm and Sean Kingsley (eds), 13 Contributors 354 pp., 514 mostly colour illustrations, 5 maps, 20 tables, 5 ‘pie’ charts Oxbow Books, 10 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford OX1 2EW, 2010, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-1842174425. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 239–241. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_24
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
Following the theme of its predecessor, this volume, to quote Stemm, CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, ‘continues the core objective’ of the company ‘to make its work accessible as widely as possible in a comprehensive and timely manner’. One would assume that there would thus be detailed archaeological analysis of the work Odyssey does on the sea-bed using its array of highly advanced equipment. However, ch. 4 is devoted to the history of cannon casting in England at the time HMS Victory (1744) was outfitted and ch. 7 gives a background to the activity of privateering. While both of these are interesting in themselves, much of what they contain is not directly relevant to understanding the wrecks to which they refer—HMS Victory and La Marquise de Tourny.
Aspects of these wrecks are covered in chs 5 and 6. The former is a conservation report on two bronze cannon Odyssey raised from the wreck of HMS Victory with the permission of the British government. They have now been relocated to the Mary Rose Trust for ongoing treatment. The wreck of the La Marquise de Tourny is the subject of the sixth chapter. Found in 2008, this was identified primarily by its bell which ‘was recorded in situ and the surrounding sediments cleared to free it for recovery in a custom-fabricated box’. Words on the bell and its general construction enabled the wreck to be identified. Although records of this vessel are sparse, decoration on a swivel gun together with a glass flacon, both of which were raised, suggested French ownership. The gun was transferred to the conservation laboratory at the York Archaeological Trust.
There is a rather odd inclusion forming ch. 3—being a note on half a wooden carpenter's rule from Odyssey shipwreck site 35 F. A form of slide rule, this is said to be the earliest example discovered on a shipwreck. Few details are provided of the wreck itself other than it has been badly disturbed by fishing and had a cargo of elephant tusks and manilla bracelets. (The latter have nothing to do with the Philippines, despite the apparent Spanish root to the word, but are associated with West Africa being penannular armlets typically of bronze that were often used as currency in the 18th century slave trade, hence ‘slave trade money’.)
Chapter 8 deals with what Odyssey calls the ‘Blue China’ wreck—that of a mid-19th-century American coastal schooner off Florida. Most of this chapter is devoted to a detailed analysis and study of the site: the nature and distribution of objects found and the impact on these of shrimp fishing. Trawl nets are said to have created ‘at least four parallel furrows cut across the eastern length of the site … These have cleared sterile paths through the cargo’. The latter part of the chapter discusses various storms that may have led to the wreck. Extracts from writings by passengers caught in storms of the period, while interesting, are hardly relevant. Chapters 9, 10 and 11 are devoted to more detailed study of the cargo of this schooner: ceramics, clay tobacco pipes and glass. Examples of these were raised for examination. The findings are placed within American trade and society of the time.
An interesting chapter is 12 which sets out the results of a survey done of six German U-boats sunk between June 1944 and May 1945 in the western English Channel and off the Cornish coast. The identity of these wrecks was ‘hitherto unidentified or vague’. Each of the six sites was visited and studied. Coupled with historical data provided by a specialist in the field, this enabled the wrecks to be identified and the often inadequate records of the period updated.
Returning to the beginning of the volume, its first 38 pages are devoted to the politics of activities directed at underwater cultural heritage. This illustrates their importance to Odyssey Marine Exploration, its staff and advisers. The section begins with eight short papers relating to the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001.
A theme running through the papers is that the Convention was designed to combat treasure- hunting: ‘a reaction to past generations’ unbridled recovery of artifacts and structural remains' (Kingsley, p. 1). It is alleged that ‘the traditional image of treasure hunting groups is no longer valid’ (Sinclair, p.18) and ‘[t]he bad old days of unrestricted large-scale plunder and the quarrying of high-value cargoes is a thing of the past’ (Kingsley, p. 21). Compare these statements with the activities of Odyssey itself. For example, Odyssey lifted 17 tons of coins from a wreck eventually held by American courts to be that of a Spanish vessel, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes although Odyssey suggested the coins came from a variety of other sources. The coins were raised from the floor of the Atlantic and flown out of Gibraltar to an undisclosed location in Florida. Spain commenced action in American courts alleging that Odyssey had interfered with a vessel entitled to sovereign immunity. Odyssey fought the proceedings right to the Supreme Court but was ordered to return the coins to Spain.
Odyssey is currently at the centre of a controversy over HMS Victory (1744) involving both the British government and various non-governmental bodies. Odyssey has a contract with the Maritime Heritage Foundation (UK) to conduct work on the site. That contract and Odyssey's activities have been strongly criticized by the major archaeological organizations and media for failure to comply with Annex A of the Convention on Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001. Odyssey argues that it can conduct high-level archaeology on deep-sea wrecks using its remote-access technology. This may be so, but its activities in relation to the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes and HMS Victory create a perception that it is no different from those earlier treasure hunters it seeks to relegate to the past. If it wishes to be taken seriously as a reputable body in marine archaeology, Odyssey and others will have to alter that perception of their activities. Part of this will involve less talk of vast quantities of gold and silver to be found on these wrecks: for example, up to £500 million worth has been stated to have been on board HMS Victory although many doubt it is the case. Dobson and Kingsley, in ch. 9 of the first volume, speculate as to the value of the bullion HMS Victory may have been carrying, including possibly four tons of gold coins. While this may inspire investors and be newsworthy, it too creates a perception of obsession with treasure. Proof of this is the references to Odyssey as a ‘treasure hunter’ in newspapers and on the internet.
The principle of in situ preservation is once again seen as a major flaw in the Convention, in spite of repeated attempts by others to explain that this is a first option only and not even a preferred option. But that option must actually be considered and reasons given for not adopting it. This may well explain why there is so much antipathy against it. In-depth analysis of a particular situation may well show that it is indeed the best option.
The prohibition against commercial exploitation is also seen as a major defect in the Convention. For example, Stemm refers to it as a ‘bizarre’ prohibition. However, that precise phrase has been used in international instruments since at least 1987 when the Council of American Maritime Museums adopted a by-law to the effect that member institutions ‘shall not knowingly acquire or exhibit artefacts … removed from commercially exploited archaeological or historic sites in recent times’.
Chapter 2 puts forward a proposal by Stemm and Bederman for the sale of part of museum collections to private collectors subject to strict conditions of accountability, conservation and maintenance. Collectors would be required to keep the museum informed of any transfer of ownership and any change in the condition of the object. This is designed to provide an answer to the very real problems many museums face of shortages of space and lack of necessary funding for storage, maintenance and conservation. However, the proposal relies on a very organized system of relationships and meticulous record-keeping—something for which historically the museum community has not been noted and which many developing countries do not have the ability to provide at present. It is also based on aspects of American law which may not be found in other legal systems.
Finally, throughout the book there is reference to the damage being done to wreck sites by the fishing industry. This was also noted in the first volume on Odyssey's work. The company has spent many years exploring the ocean floor and should have an extensive and unique record of the damage this industry is causing. Although it is a private body, Odyssey could well take the lead in organizing an international effort to reduce or eliminate this cause of damage.