Cannon and other artefacts at risk from the organised looting of shipwrecks off the English coast are being forensically tagged using new technology.
The system, eight years in the making, was inspired by tracer substances used to protect heritage assets on land, such as church roofs. It was developed in an Anglo-Dutch collaboration and will safeguard wrecks including that of the Klein Hollandia — a Dutch ship that sank with sailors of both nations on board after its capture by the Royal Navy in March 1672.
Archaeologists said it was the first time a forensic tracer had been used on underwater artefacts in British waters and they were unaware of any such schemes elsewhere. Although they aren’t sharing technical details, these markers typically involve a clear liquid solution that carries a unique code traceable to a specific site.
Hefin Meara, maritime archaeologist at the public body Historic England, said: “It is a material applied directly on to artefacts by divers. We mark all the vulnerable objects, such as bronze guns that are a tempting target with a resale value on the illicit market. By marking specific parts of objects — where you would place straps if you were lifting something from the seabed, for example — it makes them easy to track. It is going to be a game-changer for protecting sites.”
The substance won’t only allow authorities to identify looted artefacts after recovery, but should also provide incriminating evidence against anyone handling them.
Meara explained: “This is a transferable product. You can’t see it underwater, so illicit divers will end up with it on their gloves and equipment and so on. And a key thing is it’s not just the divers who are stealing stuff who’ll be caught. It will continue all the way up that that chain of evidence, so there’s the opportunity to capture and prosecute the middlemen and the people selling this material on too. In the past, we were totally dependent on catching someone red-handed, essentially, and the crime was really, really hard to prove and track.”
The project is funded by Historic England and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. The forensic technology was developed by British specialist contractor MSDS Marine and trialled on dives this summer. It has already been applied at a number of protected wreck sites, although authorities are not providing a list, so as to maximise the deterrent effect.
They have, nevertheless, revealed that one of the shipwrecks is the Klein Hollandia, which was discovered off Eastbourne in 2019 and subsequently damaged by trawling. The warship was involved in major battles of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). It went down several years later after being captured and boarded in an English surprise attack on its convoy while returning from the Mediterranean. The events contributed to the start of the Third Anglo-Dutch War.
Archaeologists say the condition of the wreck is remarkable and can offer a wealth of information about how 17th century Dutch ships were built, as well as the warship’s final voyage. Artefacts found at the wreck site include fine marble tiles and majolica pottery from Italy, as well as pottery from Northern Europe and cannon marked with the name of the gunsmith.
In deterring thefts of those artefacts most coveted on the black market, Meara said the new technology should also help to protect other remains of great archaeological value, such as timbers, which might be destroyed in illicit salvage operations.
“The deterrent value is massive”Hefin Meara, Historic England
As with many other wrecks, the significance of the Klein Hollandia site isn’t solely archaeological. Meara said: “English and Dutch sailors went down with the vessel, so there will be human remains on site. That is always a concern as well — we have to respect these sites as final resting places.”
There are around 37,000 known shipwrecks off England’s coastline — a legacy of Britain’s industrial past and thousands of years of trade and warfare. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, which grants the highest level of protection to 57 of them. Only licensed divers can dive these sites and their contents are protected by law. Nevertheless, they have been targeted in increasingly sophisticated thefts.
Meara said: “We have about 200 volunteer divers monitoring the sites on a regular basis. They’re the eyes and ears on the ground and, thanks to them, we’re able to have a big deterrent effect. But we can’t stop everything. In recent years, there have been around six incidents of unauthorised salvage from these wreck sites. That includes bronze guns and similar artefacts being stolen and is a massive loss to the integrity of the sites and their importance as an analytical resource.
“This is not opportunistic theft. These are complicated salvage operations, using big equipment, and there are specialists involved all the way along.”
After artefacts are looted from protected sites, criminals may seek to give them a false provenance by claiming to have recovered them from international waters. This was the fraud perpetrated by one commercial diver jailed in 2015 after selling two cannon from the protected 17th-century shipwreck The London for £46,000. The organisations behind the forensic marking scheme are confident that it will greatly reduce such attempts.
Meara said: “The deterrent value is massive. And if the worst happens and someone does steal something, this should help us to get the material back and to prosecute.”
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England said: “Our nationally important shipwrecks tell the story of England’s maritime past. Underwater forensic marking of artefacts is a great leap forward in helping to protect them. We are pleased to be working with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands on this project and to further our research into the 17th-century Dutch warship Klein Hollandia. International collaboration like this is so important for preserving our shared maritime heritage.”
While 57 wrecks off England’s coast have the highest level of protection, Meara said the recovery of artefacts from any wreck site is carefully regulated.
The photograph at the top of the article shows a diver applying the protective marking substance to a bronze cannon on the Klein Hollandia protected wreck site. Image: MSDS Marine/Martin Davies