The queen and the sculptor

Egyptologist thinks he has found tomb of artist who created famed bust of Nefertiti

October 21, 2013 | Editor's Pick Popular

By Corydon Ireland, Harvard Staff Writer


For those of us aging fast, it is nice to know that one the most beautiful faces in the world is more than 3,300 years old.


That face is on the bust of Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, whose reign in Egypt spanned 1353–1336 BCE. This famous artifact, 44 pounds and life-size, has a layer of painted gypsum stucco over a full-featured limestone core. It was discovered a century ago in the ruins of an ancient artist’s studio in Amarna, south of Cairo. First made public in 1924, it fast became an icon of feminine beauty.


A slender, smooth neck gives way to skin the color of golden sand. Then come full, red lips; a dramatic, sloping nose; almond eyes; and arching, dark eyebrows. Above the face is a colorful, back-sweeping, cylindrical crown. It’s a lot for the eye to take in, especially since the work was likely just an artist’s model, and never intended for display.


Found scattered through the same studio were 22 plaster casts of faces. Some depict older women with every wrinkle and sag, an artistic anomaly in a culture that stylized women as slender and beautiful. (Nefertiti’s image beneath the stucco, recent CT scans show, was more realistic: a woman with lesser cheekbones, wrinkled cheeks, and a bump on the nose.)


But the world sees just the surface. The face “is part of our culture,” said French Egyptologist Alain Zivie in a Harvard lecture last Thursday, “like a picture of Che Guevara or Einstein or the Mona Lisa in Paris.”


The discovery of the bust in Amarna in 1912 is one of archaeology’s signature moments. A famous photograph depicts German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt getting a first look at the life-size bust. “Suddenly we had the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands,” he wrote in his diary. “You cannot describe it with words. You can only see it.” (He kept the bust in his Berlin home for 11 years before moving it to Berlin’s Neues Museum.)


Yet who created the famous bust, and sculpted and painted the famous face? It was Thutmose, who in his day styled himself “the king’s favorite and master of works.”


The lecture, “Discovering the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti’s Artist,” reminded the audience of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s official court sculptor, a man whom Zivie has styled “the Michelangelo of ancient Egypt.” The talk was a testament to Egyptology’s durable drawing power (or perhaps Nefertiti’s). Fong Auditorium was full, from the front row to the top tier. (Co-sponsoring the event were the Semitic Museum and Harvard’s Standing Committee on Archaeology.)


The lecture was also a testament to Zivie’s current academic interest: to prove that the Thutmose of the studio in Amarna is the same as the Thutmose whose tomb he discovered farther north in Saqqara. Zivie was nearly 33 minutes into his 51-minute talk before he mentioned Nefertiti. “Of course, we come to the lady, the icon,” he said, teasing the audience first with a picture of the bust from behind.


It was Zivie who discovered Thutmose’s presumptive tomb in 1996 while helping to excavate what initially were believed to be just subterranean galleries for mummified cats and dogs. (Egyptian animal cults had flourished in Saqqara.) Tombs, he said, “are sometimes small holes,” and may be hard to identify for what they are. Thutmose’s was small and it stank, said Zivie, and was “not very attractive at first.”


The area of the Thutmose tomb is called Bubasteion, which is now less about mummified pets (thought to number in the millions) and “more and more a New Kingdom necropolis,” said Zivie, the director of the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion and this year a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Semitic Museum.


Zivie made his case for the historical Thutmose, a man he called “an exceptional artist who made his own tomb.” He showed his audience the inside. To the left are three preserved painted walls that form a sort of autobiographical triptych. “It’s a lifetime passing by,” he said of the pictures, which include Thutmose, his wife, and children.


Zivie showed one slide that was a detail of “the wife of the master, painted by himself,” which “is so moving.” So was the depiction of the artist and his wife, in full face and figure, painted together on a double coffin. “It’s moving because we know it is Thutmose himself,” said Zivie. “He painted himself dead.”


Central to the triptych is what Zivie called a metaphor of the artist’s life, a small horizontal palette of many colors, similar to the one of ivory found in the studio in Amarna. It was with paint, he said, that the master gave to sculptures “the final touch of life.”


Is it truly the tomb of Thutmose, the artist whose name hovers behind Nefertiti’s memorable face? At lecture’s end, Zivie admitted “the story is unfinished.” The jury of scholars is still out, later agreed Peter Der Manuelian, Harvard’s Phillip J. King Professor of Egyptology and director of the Semitic Museum. “More evidence would be nice, but the contemporaneity works.”


From the audience, Egyptologist Jacquelyn Williamson said during a lively question-and-answer period that, “You have me 98 percent convinced.” Williamson is a Harvard Divinity School affiliate and a specialist in the Amarna Period, when Nefertiti lived. She is a visiting lecturer in Women’s Studies and Near Eastern Studies and in spring will teach a course on gender and sexuality in cultures pre-dating the Bible.


Zivie made his last trip to the Saqqara site last November. It was cut short by Egypt’s political turmoil. But he made the audience an offer. “You are welcome when you pass [by] in Egypt,” said Zivie of the artist’s tomb, “to see with your own eyes.”



Climate change destroyed the Bible's ancient kingdoms, study finds

Scientists from Israel and Germany argue that a climate crisis did in civilizations, helping spawn the first Kingdom of Israel and other new political entities.

By Nir Hasson | Oct. 25, 2013 | 8:20 AM |   4


Between 1250 and 1100 B.C.E., all the great civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean – pharaonic Egypt, Mycenaean Greece and Crete, Ugarit in Syria and the large Canaanite city-states – were destroyed, ushering in new peoples and kingdoms including the first Kingdom of Israel.


Now scientists are suggesting a climatic explanation for this great upheaval: A long dry period caused droughts, hunger and mass migration. Such is the conclusion of a three-year study published this week in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.


The researchers drilled deep under the Kinneret, retrieving 18-meter strips of sediment from the bottom of the lake. From the sediment they extracted fossil pollen grains. "Pollen is the most enduring organic material in nature," says palynologist Dafna Langgut, who did the sampling work.


According to Langgut, "Pollen was driven to the Kinneret by wind and streams, deposited in the lake and embedded in the underwater sediment. New sediment was added annually, creating anaerobic conditions that help preserve pollen particles. These particles tell us about the vegetation that grew near the lake and testify to the climatic conditions in the region."


Radiocarbon dating of the pollen revealed a period of severe droughts between c. 1250 and 1100 B.C.E. A sediment strip from the Dead Sea's western shore provided similar results.


Langgut published the study with Prof. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Thomas Litt of the University of Bonn and Prof. Mordechai Stein of Hebrew University's Earth Sciences Institute.


"The advantage of our study, compared to pollen investigations at other locations in the Middle East, is our unprecedented frequency of sampling - for about every 40 years," says Finkelstein.


"Pollen is usually sampled for every several hundreds of years; this is logical when you're interested in prehistoric matters. Since we were interested in historical periods, we had to sample the pollen more frequently; otherwise a crisis such as the one at the end of the Bronze Age would have escaped our attention." That crisis lasted 150 years.


The research shows a chronological correlation between the pollen results and other records of climate crisis. At the end of the Bronze Age – c. 1250-1100 B.C.E. - many eastern Mediterranean cities were destroyed by fire. Meanwhile, ancient Near Eastern documents testify to severe droughts and famine in the same period – from the Hittite capital in Anatolia in the north to Ugarit on the Syrian coast, Afek in Israel and Egypt in the south.


The scientists used a model proposed by Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum of Hebrew University, who studied documents that describe similar conditions of severe drought and famine in the 10th and 11th centuries C.E.


He showed that in areas such as modern Turkey and northern Iran, a reduction in precipitation was accompanied by devastating cold spells that destroyed crops.


Langgut, Finkelstein and Litt say a similar process occurred at the end of the Bronze Age; severe cold spells destroyed crops in the north of the ancient Near East and a reduction in precipitation damaged agricultural output in the eastern steppe parts of the region. This led to droughts and famine and motivated "large groups of people to start moving to the south in search of food," says Egyptologist Shirly Ben-Dor Evian of Tel Aviv University.



How did ancient Greek music sound?

23 October 2013 Last updated at 00:41

By Armand D'Angour


The music of ancient Greece, unheard for thousands of years, is being brought back to life by Armand D'Angour, a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University. He describes what his research is discovering.


"Suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of the Beatles songs were a few of the lyrics, and all that remained of Mozart and Verdi's operas were the words and not the music.


Imagine if we could then reconstruct the music, rediscover the instruments that played them, and hear the words once again in their proper setting, how exciting that would be.


This is about to happen with the classic texts of ancient Greece.


It is often forgotten that the writings at the root of Western literature - the epics of Homer, the love-poems of Sappho, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides - were all, originally, music.


Dating from around 750 to 400 BC, they were composed to be sung in whole or part to the accompaniment of the lyre, reed-pipes, and percussion instruments.


But isn't the music lost beyond recovery? The answer is no. The rhythms - perhaps the most important aspect of music - are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.


The Argo, re-constructed for TV documentary

Time travellers: Academics are reconstructing the lost sound of ancient Greece

The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.


And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.


The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals - an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.


The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch: letter A at the top of the scale, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can be worked out from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.


While the documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, have long been known to classicists - some were published as early as 1581 - in recent decades they have been augmented by new finds. Dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, these fragments offer us a clearer view than ever before of the music of ancient Greece.


The research project that I have embarked on, funded by the British Academy, has the aim of bringing this music back to life.


Folk music

But it is important to realise that ancient rhythmical and melodic norms were different from our own.


We must set aside our Western preconceptions. A better parallel is non-Western folk traditions, such as those of India and the Middle East.


Instrumental practices that derive from ancient Greek traditions still survive in areas of Sardinia and Turkey, and give us an insight into the sounds and techniques that created the experience of music in ancient times.


So what did Greek music sound like?


Some of the surviving melodies are immediately attractive to a modern ear. One complete piece, inscribed on a marble column and dating from around 200 AD, is a haunting short song of four lines composed by Seikilos. The words of the song may be translated:


While you're alive, shine:


never let your mood decline.


We've a brief span of life to spend:


Time necessitates an end.


The notation is unequivocal. It marks a regular rhythmic beat, and indicates a very important principle of ancient composition.


In ancient Greek the voice went up in pitch on certain syllables and fell on others (the accents of ancient Greek indicate pitch, not stress). The contours of the melody follow those pitches here, and fairly consistently in all the documents.


Tuning up

But one shouldn't assume that the Greeks' idea of tuning was identical to ours. Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD provides precise mathematical ratios for numerous different scale-tunings, including one that he says sounds "foreign and homespun".


Joan Plowright and John Gielgud preparing for a radio version of a Sophocles play in 1959

Timeless: Joan Plowright and John Gielgud preparing a 1959 radio version of a Sophocles play

Dr David Creese of the University of Newcastle has constructed an eight-string "canon" (a zither-like instrument) with movable bridges.


When he plays two versions of the Seikilos tune using Ptolemy's tunings, the second immediately strikes us as exotic, more like Middle Eastern than Western music.


The earliest musical document that survives preserves a few bars of sung music from a play, Orestes by the fifth-century BC tragedian Euripides. It may even be music Euripides himself wrote.


Music of this period used subtle intervals such as quarter-tones. We also find that the melody doesn't conform to the word pitches at all.


Euripides was a notoriously avant-garde composer, and this indicates one of the ways in which his music was heard to be wildly modern: it violated the long-held norms of Greek folk singing by neglecting word-pitch.


However, we can recognise that Euripides adopted another principle. The words "I lament" and "I beseech" are set to a falling, mournful-sounding cadence; and when the singer says "my heart leaps wildly", the melody leaps as well. This was ancient Greek soundtrack music.


And it was received with great excitement in the Greek world. The historian Plutarch tells a moving story about the thousands of Athenian soldiers held prisoner in roasting Syracusan quarries after a disastrous campaign in 413 BC. Those few who were able to sing Euripides' latest songs were able to earn some food and drink.


What about the greatest of ancient poet-singers, Homer himself?


Homer tells us that bards of his period sang to a four-stringed lyre, called a "phorminx". Those strings will probably have been tuned to the four notes that survived at the core of the later Greek scale systems.


Professor Martin West of Oxford has reconstructed the singing of Homer on that basis. The result is a fairly monotonous tune, which probably explains why the tradition of Homeric recitation without melody emerged from what was originally a sung composition.


"What song the Sirens sang," is the first of the questions listed by the 17th Century English writer, Sir Thomas Browne, as "puzzling, though not beyond all conjecture".


"The reconstruction of ancient Greek music is bringing us a step closer to answering the question."



Ancient Magic Curse Tablet Found in Jerusalem



Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists excavated a 1,700-year-old curse tablet from a Roman mansion in the City of David in Jerusalem. In the tablet a woman named Kyrilla curses a man named Iennys, likely over a legal case.


A lead curse tablet, dating back around 1,700 years and likely written by a magician, has been discovered in a collapsed Roman mansion in Jerusalem, archaeologists report.


The mansion, which is being excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Givati Parking Lot, is located in what is known as the "City of David," an area that holds at least 6,000 years of human occupation. The mansion itself covers at least 2,000 square meters (about half an acre) and contains two large open courtyards adjacent to each other. It was in use between the late third century and A.D. 363, when it was destroyed in a series of earthquakes on May 18 or 19.


The text is written in Greek and, in it a woman named Kyrilla invokes the names of six gods to cast a curse on a man named Iennys, apparently over a legal case. (See Photos of the Ancient Curse Tablet)


"I strike and strike down and nail down the tongue, the eyes, the wrath, the ire, the anger, the procrastination, the opposition of Iennys," part of the curse reads in translation. Kyrilla asks the gods to ensure that "he in no way oppose, so that he say or perform nothing adverse to Kyrilla … but rather that Iennys, whom the womb bore, be subject to her…"


To obtain her goal Kyrilla combined elements from four religions, Robert Walter Daniel, of the Institut für Altertumskunde at the University of Cologne, told LiveScience in an email. Of six gods invoked, four of them are Greek (Hermes, Persephone, Pluto and Hecate), one is Babylonian (Ereschigal) and one, Abrasax, is Gnostic, a religion connected to early Christianity. Additionally, the text contains magic words such as "Iaoth" that have a Hebrew/Judaism origin.


A professional magician likely created the curse for Kyrilla, who may have literally used a hammer and nails to perform a magical rite that enhanced the effectiveness of the curse, Daniel said.


"The hammering and nailing is a form of gaining control over the person(s) targeted in magical texts," he wrote in the email.


Kyrilla and her curse-recipient, both probably members of the Roman middle or upper class, were likely in some legal dispute, as the curse tablet bears similarities to others found in Cyprus that are known to have been used in legal cases. Additionally the word "opposition" in this text hints at a legal matter.



Lasers and robots explore the hidden aqueducts of Ancient Rome

By Nick Squires

5:30 AM Monday Oct 28, 2013


Some 2000 years after they were hacked out of solid rock by Roman engineers, the aqueducts that brought fresh water to Ancient Rome are being explored anew with 21st-century technology.


Archaeologists with specialist caving, abseiling and potholing experience are using lasers, remote-controlled robots and 3D scanners to map the dozen aqueducts that were built over centuries.


They are working from maps made by Thomas Ashby, a British topographer and archaeologist who explored the hidden tunnels before and after World War I.


Almost a century later, the new breed of explorers is measuring the aqueducts with precision he could only have dreamed of.


They are using 3D scanners mounted on tripods to produce accurate images of the inside of the tunnels, which are lined with Roman-era concrete so smooth and unblemished it looks as if it was applied just a few years ago.


Laser "rangefinders" enable the archaeologists to measure the size, direction and elevation of the tunnels, in the mountains east of Rome.


The mapping effort is being led by amateur archaeologists with caving expertise from a group called Sotterranei di Roma (Underground Rome).


"The Romans were incredible engineers," said Alfonso Diaz Boj, 52, a Spanish member of the group who led the Sunday Telegraph into an aqueduct near modern-day Mandela.


"To slow down the flow of the water they deliberately built curved sections. Teams of diggers would start from opposite directions and then meet in the middle."


The excavation was carried out by specialist engineers, he added, but the soil would have been removed by slaves. "Ninety per cent of these aqueducts are tunnels - it was much easier to burrow underground than to build channels supported on pylons above ground," he said.


But where the aqueducts emerged from the mountainsides into gorges or valleys, the Romans had no choice but to build bridges to carry the water to the next tunnel. Pick marks left by their tools were clearly visible on the roof of the aqueduct known as the Aqua Claudio.


Its construction began in the reign of the Emperor Caligula in 38AD and was finished in that of the Emperor Claudius, 14 years later. It ran for abut 72 kilometres, from the mountains beyond the modern towns of Tivoli and Frascati.


Other aqueducts extended almost 95km from Rome. The precious supply arrived at one of the ancient city's gates, the Porta Maggiore.


Other archaeologists are going underground in the city itself, exploring the cisterns, drains and tunnels beneath the Roman Forum with the help of a remote-controlled robot.


The six-wheeled "archeo-robot", equipped with two powerful computers, three high-definition cameras and laser sensors, is able to trundle along narrow passageways which are too small or dangerous for humans.


"It's not very nice down there and there's often a build-up of gases, so robots are ideal," said Christopher Smith, director of the British School at Rome, an archaeological research institute established in 1901.


"They're very good for getting into difficult underground areas. There are miles and miles of tunnels beneath sites like the Colosseum, for instance, much of which we know very little about."


- Daily Telegraph UK


By Nick Squires



Crosby Garrett Helmet heading to Carlisle's Tullie House

28 October 2013


A Roman cavalry helmet sold for £2.2m after it was discovered in a Cumbrian field is to go on show in Carlisle from Friday.


The Crosby Garrett Helmet, named after the village near Penrith where it was found using a metal detector, will be displayed at Tullie House Museum.


Museum director Hilary Wade said it was "one of the most extraordinary objects from the Roman period in Britain".


Tullie House attempted to buy the helmet when it was auctioned in 2010.


It was bought by a private bidder.


Its display at Tullie House is supported by the Art Fund and The Monument Trust.


Ms Wade said: "It was made for splendid sporting events rather than battle and shows what a spectacular impression the cavalry would have made.


"The helmet will complement our Roman collections and will add to visitors' appreciation of the Roman presence in this region."


Following its stint at Tullie House, which runs until 26 January, the helmet will go on show at the British Museum.



1500 years old edifice discovered in Sweden

In Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, archaeologists have found the remains of a hitherto unknown monument from 400-500's. - We know very few similar monuments in Scandinavia, and this is the most extensive, says project leader of the excavation.

Camilla Week, journalist at NRK Tuesday 22 October 2013 at. 5:00


Archaeologists in Sweden have found two long rows of wooden poles which are perpendicular to each other. One row is a mile long and consists of pits to 144 bars, while the second row is at least 500 meters long. The distance between each pit is six meters, while the distance between the rows is 500 meters.

- We believe that the wooden posts have been high, perhaps in excess of eight to ten feet. They have been clearly visible from a distance, says project manager for the excavation, Lena Beronius-Jörpeland, archaeologist at the National Heritage Board in Sweden in a statement.


In Denmark there is a variant of such rows is from Viking times, but where they functioned more like a protective wall.


- As regards such a large area of land, we do not believe that these post rows would work as well as protection. By this time the old castle that had that feature, but that was much less. Maybe this monument more features, says Beronius-Jörpeland to Dagens Nyheter.


Discovery Square is just a few hundred meters from the famous King Country places - three large burial mounds often called Kungshögarna. These are from the decades around 600 AD, and had important functions including religion and commerce.


Now scientists speculate whether there is a correlation between post rows and royal places. Area both monuments is one of the most significant from the Swedish Iron Age.


- We know that there was some kind of court around kings are buried in royal places, and it is therefore tempting to believe that it had a connection with the newly discovered monument. It should perhaps visualize and manifest a position of power, says Beronius-Jörpeland.


In some of the pits where it stood before the bars, the finds of bones by animals. In one of them is the skeleton of a puppy dog ​​dug up, which may indicate that the dog was sacrificed for instance when the post was erected, or as an end offerings.


The excavations will now continue, but in addition, scientists see if they can find similar structures in Europe and around the Mediterranean. The idea is that if there are people in power who ordered the construction of the monument in Gamla Uppsala, so they may have taken inspiration from abroad.



Viking parliament found under Dingwall car park

An early 20th century photograph of Dingwall's Viking mound. Picture: Dingwall Historical Society

An early 20th century photograph of Dingwall's Viking mound. Picture: Dingwall Historical Society


Updated on the 23 October 2013


A CAR park in a Highland town has been confirmed by archaeologists as the meeting place of a medieval Norse parliament.


Excavations at the Cromartie Memorial car park in Dingwall uncovered evidence of a mound that archaeologists believe was established in the 11th century as a gathering spot for a Viking parliament, known as a “Thing”.


When it was constructed the “Thing” would have been on a man-made islet in the estuary of the River Pefferey, historians claimed. They believe the mound was built on the instructions of Thorfinn the Mighty, a powerful Viking earl who died in 1065.


He is thought to have laid the foundations of what would later become the royal burgh of Dingwall in Ross-shire.


It is only the second time a “Thing” site has been uncovered in the UK. Yesterday historians said the discovery would help them learn more about the Norse Vikings, who battled for control of land across the north of Scotland.


David MacDonald, of Dingwall History Society, which was part of the dig partnership, said that a road, a ditch and an aqueduct, known as the Water of Dyke, that drew water from hillside springs, were also constructed when Thorfinn was in control of Ross-shire.


He said Thorfinn’s rise to power was aided by his victory in a battle at Torfnes on the south side of the Cromarty Firth, possibly against MacBeth’s troops. At the height of his power, Thorfinn became Lord of Caithness, Shetland and Orkney.


The origins of the town of Dingwall as a Viking Thing-site had long puzzled historians and archaeologists alike, with many believing it was elsewhere on the Black Isle in Ross-shire.


But now the results of the archaeological dig, the culmination of Highland Council’s participation as a partner in the EU Northern Periphery International Thing Project, has come up with real answers.


Mr MacDonald said: “You can call this the official confirmation of the car park being the location of a ‘Thing’.


“It has been very exciting over the years, but all the historical research points in this direction.”


In recent times historical investigation identified the Cromartie car park – which contains the burial place and memorial monument of George, first earl of Cromartie, who died in 1714 – as the site of the long lost Moothill of Dingwall, the town’s medieval meeting place. This has now been confirmed as deriving from the Viking Thing-mound.


A trial trench excavation in the car park in 2012 showed significant radio-carbon datings.


According to archaeologist Dr Oliver O’Grady, a leading authority on the assembly mounds of Scotland, who was part of the dig : “The excavations have confirmed the presence of important archaeological remains and indicated that the mound was man-made and probably created during the 11th century.


“The radio-carbon datings provide strong scientific evidence to support the interpretation that the mound was created during the period of late Norwegian political influence in Ross-shire and wider North-east Scotland.


“The lack of substantial occupation remains or burial activity is also further circumstantial evidence that the mound was created for an assembly site or Thing.


“The substantial manpower and effort required to create a monument on the scale of the Dingwall mound would also seem in keeping with the establishment of a major regional judicial and administrative centre.”


Dingwall, which lies at the head of the Cromarty Firth, is a location on a European tourist trail of Thing sites. Funded by the EU, the Thing Sites GeoTour involves Scotland, Norway, Iceland, the Faroes and Isle of Man.



In too deep: Warship wreck 'bounty hunter' under scrutiny from Britain's marine watchdog

Company searching for bullion on 18th-century vessel may have broken maritime law

CAHAL MILMO  Author Biography   SUNDAY 27 OCTOBER 2013


A US marine salvage company is being investigated by Britain's marine watchdog for allegedly exploring the wreck of a 276-year-old British naval warship without permission. Odyssey Marine Exploration hailed the discovery of the HMS Victory, the predecessor to Nelson's famous flagship, as one of the most important maritime finds ever when they announced its discovery in the English Channel in 2008. It sank in 1744 with Admiral Sir John Balchen on board, and it was thought the wreck could well be carrying bullion and bronze cannon worth more than £600m.


But the discovery of the vessel has sparked controversy, with archaeologists and descendants of the 1,000 men who died, saying any attempt to recover gold or artefacts for profit is wrong and "distasteful".


The row has taken a further twist after it was revealed that the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), the UK's marine watchdog, is investigating allegations that Odyssey explored the wreck without a licence last year. Investigators are understood to be studying footage from a TV documentary filmed on an Odyssey vessel that seems to show the discovery of a human skull in mud on the sea floor. MMO is "currently undertaking an investigation into alleged activity in relation to the site of HMS Victory".


It is understood that one of the issues being considered is whether this activity required a licence.


Under maritime law, all naval vessels lost at sea are considered to have "sovereign immunity" and cannot be disturbed without governmental approval. But following the discovery of the Victory, the wreck was given a different status by the Ministry of Defence by being "gifted" to a new charity, the Maritime Heritage Foundation (MHF).


Founded by Lord Lingfield, a descendent of Admiral Balchen, following the wreck's discovery, the MHF negotiated an agreement with Odyssey to explore the wreck and potentially recover artefacts including the ship's bronze cannons. The Victory may have also carried gold coin bullion worth up to £620m. Odyssey is to receive the equivalent of 80 per cent of the value of recovered bullion and 50 per cent of the value of artefacts such as cannons.


But, under the terms of the original agreement between the MHF and the Government, any work to explore the site by disturbing silt or digging trenches can only be carried out once ministers have approved a programme in keeping with Britain's obligations under a Unesco underwater archaeology agreement.


Experts advising ministers agreed that the site, already raided by rogue Dutch salvers who stole a cannon, may need preservation by raising to the surface some artefacts already dragged by fishing vessels.


In a letter to David Cameron, Richard Temple West, a descendant of Admiral Balchen's daughter, said: "We appreciate that HMS Victory is an important historic wreck, but we feel this very fact, coupled with the fact that she is a both a grave and memorial, makes it entirely inappropriate that she should be subject to a commercial salvage contract."


The project still awaits ministerial approval. In an 2012 email to the Ministry of Defence, Lord Lingfield wrote that the MHF's scientific advisers had approved the "dusting of mobile surface sediment" on the wreck site as well as ensuring that cannon had been "prepared for lifting". In a second email to the MoD, Lord Lingfield wrote: "PLEASE could ministers give the go-ahead soon, we really need the summer time to carry out careful archaeological work as the at-risk items are recovered. It is now very urgent."


Odyssey insisted it was working closely to "ensure the protection of this important piece of the UK's maritime heritage".


The statement added: "Odyssey always seeks to fully comply with applicable regulatory regimes on projects that fall under the jurisdiction of government agencies, including the regulations of the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).”