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Bronze cannon protruding from a sandbank on the shipwreck site of HMS Victory
Bronze cannon on the shipwreck site of HMS Victory bearing the royal crest of King George I (1714-1727)
Measuring the bore hole of a 42-pounder bronze cannon on the shipwreck site of HMS Victory

HMS Victory Operational Overview

In April 2008, as part of its ongoing “Atlas” shipwreck survey project in the western English Channel, Odyssey Marine Exploration recorded an interesting target using side-scan sonar and a magnetometer. The resultant high-frequency image depicted a clearly disturbed sea bottom across an oval area of 40m, interspersed with linear objects. The 35-gamma magnetometer profile was suggestive of a wooden wreck with features typifying iron anchors, cannon and ship structure.

From the research platform Odyssey Explorer, Odyssey’s Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) ZEUS, subsequently made 23 dives on the site between May and October 2008, which verified the existence of a substantial newly discovered shipwreck. Visual investigation of the site, complemented by a pre-disturbance survey, identified a significant concentration of wreckage covering an area of 61 x 22m, comprised of hull remains, the ship’s 10 meter-long rudder, rectangular iron ballast, two anchors, a copper kettle, rigging, two probable gunner’s wheels and most diagnostically 41 bronze cannon, including eight 42-pounder guns.

Examination of the site and its material culture subsequently led Odyssey to conclude that it had likely discovered the long-lost wreck of Admiral Sir John Balchin’s first-rate Royal Navy warship, HMS Victory which sank with all hands aboard during a storm in October 1744. Upon initial location and site documentation, Odyssey immediately notified the proper authorities in the British Government, and with their agreement, began to further investigate the site.

Following the non-disturbance survey, measurement and photography of surface features, Odyssey completed a non-disturbance photomosaic of the site consisting of 2,821 high-resolution still images taken at an elevation of 2.5m above the seabed. Subsequently, a small-scale trial trenching was conducted, largely confined to the stern area of the shipwreck where the most diagnostic artifacts were anticipated to be preserved. A master photomosaic of the wreck site was then produced, and a pre-disturbance site plan photographed all in situ material cultural and defined the level of site preservation and the extent of biological activity. An archaeological paper detailing this preliminary survey is available here.

It is clear from Odyssey's preliminary investigations and documentation of the Victory wreck site, that the integrity of the site has been extensively disturbed by beam trawlers as well modern pollutants, including the presence of glass bottles, a lobster trap, fishing net, plastic, cereal boxes, a videotape cassette and other modern contamination. Of major concern is the orientation of the visible cannon, some of which no longer reflect their original dispositions at right-angles to the line of the keel. Given the enormous weight of the lower-deck 4-ton 42-pounders, and the extremely high probability that they reached the seabed in their original positions, this pattern of cannon disturbance appears to be the result of trawler cables and nets dragging the site. The site lies in a rich biological oasis with an abundance of fish, octopi, and crab, and is thus a great attraction for trawlers, which will undoubtedly result in continued destruction of the wreck.

With the goal of further establishing a positive identification, and with the agreement of the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), Odyssey recovered two bronze cannon from the wreck site: a 12-pounder featuring the royal arms of King George II (r. 1727-60), and a 4 ton, 42-pounder bearing the crest of George I (r. 1714-27). Both guns carry the maker’s mark (“SCHALCH”), representing Andrew Schalch of the Royal Brass Foundry, Woolwich, widely recognized as the pre-eminent master founder of his time. The cannon also feature archetypal dolphin handles, common to bronze cannon of the era in which HMS Victory sailed. The dates, size and caliber of the guns recovered, combined with detailed inspection of the visible cannon on the seabed, were key pieces of evidence to conclusively identify the shipwreck as Britain’s first-rate warship, HMS Victory—the last Royal Navy warship to be lost at sea with a complete complement of bronze cannon.

Odyssey has been cooperating closely with the UK MOD on the HMS Victory project, and all activities at the site have been conducted in accordance with protocols agreed to by the MOD and Royal Navy officials. On September 18, 2009, Odyssey announced it reached an agreement with the UK Government on a salvage award for the cannon recovered from the site. The company conducted additional monitoring visits to the site, which has revealed additional damage including 4-ton cannon shifted around the site, most likely as a result of trawling in the area. Odyssey has also participated in the ongoing process of consultation to determine the approaches that should be adopted towards the wreck.

Following a period of joint consultation between the UK Ministry of Defence and the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport and a public consultation, the remains of HMS Victory (1744) were transferred to the Maritime Heritage Foundation in January 2012. The Foundation executed an agreement with Odyssey Marine Exploration to provide a full range of archaeological, recovery, conservation and other services. As part of the agreement, Odyssey produced an extensive project design for the archaeological excavation of the site, including a complete plan for recording, documentation, conservation, publication and public education.

 

Odyssey provided a detailed report to the Maritime Heritage Foundation with the preliminary results of an extensive non-intrusive preliminary survey of the Victory site conducted in early 2012. The survey utilized advanced technologies which produced a detailed three dimensional inspection of both the surface and sub-sedimentary portions of the site. This detailed map shows a total of at least 75 bronze cannon on the site, as well as differentiated deposits of both ferrous and non-ferrous metals. This data will be used to guide the preliminary excavation of the site. Odyssey also supplied a report to the Foundation that details monitoring of the site conducted by Odyssey and Wreck Watch International between 2008 and early 2012. The report, which includes evidence of additional damage to the site since 2008, and other reports including details of work conducted during Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the project design are available here.

The Maritime Heritage Foundation is currently waiting for permission from the Ministry of Defence and  a license from the Marine Management Organisation to proceed with recovery of the at-risk surface artifacts.


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