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Pre-booking is advised, and visitors must wear masks for their safety and the safety of others, unless exempt.

HMS Caroline remains temporarily closed. Find The Latest COVID-19 Updates Here.
 

 

Excavating Wrecks Part 1

Excavating wrecks - Should we, shouldn’t we?

Part 1 – Two wrecks, both alike in dignity.


Sunken wrecks are amazing, hidden worlds looming out of the underwater gloom. It makes us want to find out more, but is the pursuit of knowledge always a good thing?

This blog aims to address some of the moral dilemmas that archaeologists and museums face when excavating wrecks. We will ask you some of the questions we ask ourselves when dealing with these dilemmas.

Wrecks we've worked on

The National Museum of the Royal Navy has been working on two important and very different wrecks in the Solent, off Portsmouth. The first is a ship, HMS Invincible, and the second an aircraft, a Fairey Barracuda.

HMS Invincible (1744) was the Royal Navy’s very first ship of that name, which sank in the Solent back in 1758. Invincible was excavated by the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust and Bournemouth University Maritime Archaeology between 2017 and 2019.

The Fairey Barracuda was a Second World War Royal Navy carrier-borne torpedo and dive bomber aircraft that had force-landed into the Solent shortly after take-off from RNAS Lee-on-Solent. The Barracuda was excavated by Wessex Archaeology in summer 2019.

Rules and regulations

The small print - This is the boring, but really important bit...

Wrecks in British waters that are considered to have historical, archaeological or artistic importance are protected under the Protection of Wrecks act 1973.

That means that you can’t excavate or even dive on them without the proper licenses, it's a criminal offence. They are designated restricted zones in an attempt to stop them being damaged by humans.

The science

What makes wrecks exciting is that underwater conditions can produce incredible levels of preservation. Under the seabed is an anaerobic environment, in other words, there is no oxygen.

Bacteria that slowly break down anything organic (things made from things that once grew, like wood, leather or paper) need oxygen to function.

Other marine creatures also need oxygen to live, and so couldn’t munch away at ships’ timbers.

What makes our wrecks interesting?


Thanks to the anaerobic environment mentioned above, HMS Invincible is so well-preserved that even some of the original smells survive on the ship’s rope.

In contrast to the organic structure of HMS Invincible, the Fairey Barracuda was mostly built with aluminium alloys which can have good resistance to corrosion in sea water.

Some parts of the Fairey Barracuda were incredibly well preserved and one of the aircraft’s batteries even shows a small level of charge after 76 years on the seabed.

Additionally, as the aircraft had force-landed relatively smoothly into the sea, the wreckage provided the most complete and intact Barracuda structure to have ever been found. But is now in a very delicate and fragile state, being held in place only by the sand and silt of the seabed and the remnants of the fuselage structure. Moving it would be rather like moving a cobweb.


So, we have two wrecks within which many items are exceptionally well preserved, but what do we do with them? What do you think? It’s your heritage. Do you think everybody should be allowed to dive on an historical wreck? As we have already asked: is the pursuit of knowledge always a good thing?

Look out for 'Part 2 – To excavate, or not to excavate?' and 'Part 3 – A tank of water big enough to hold a wreck' which we'll be sharing over the next couple of days.

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