Dig reveals human skulls mounted on stakes
Published: 19 Sep 11 11:55 CET
Several human skulls found mounted on wooden stakes have been uncovered from a Stone Age lake bed in central Sweden in what is believed to be the first discovery of its kind anywhere in the world.
“We found two skulls that still had wooden stakes sticking out of them through a whole at the base of the skull,” archeologist Fredrik Hallgren, head of excavation with the Stiftelsen Kulturmiljövård Mälardalen (‘Cultural Preservation Society of Mälardalen’) told The Local.
The skulls and other artifacts, including bones of wild animals, were recovered at the Kanaljorden excavation site in the town of Motala in central Sweden.
According to results from carbon-14 dating techniques, the skulls and other items are estimated to be about 8,000-years-old.
“As far as we know, this discovery is unique in the world. Nothing has been found like this that is so old,” said Hallgren.
The mounted skulls were found with the stakes inserted the full length from the base to the top of the skull.
In another case a temporal bone of one individual identified as a female was found placed inside the skull of another woman.
Altogether Hallgren and his colleagues have identified skulls or skull fragments from 11 individuals, including both men and women and ranging in age from infants to middle-age.
The bones were found in what was a shallow lake during the early Stone Age which appears to have served as a ceremonial burial site.
“Clearly this lake was some sort of holy place for the people who lived here at the time,” said Hallgren.
Archaeologists are exploring two theories to explain why the human skulls were mounted on wooden stakes before being placed in the lake bed
“One thought is that it was part of some sort of secondary burial ritual where the skulls were removed from dead bodies that had initially been placed elsewhere,” said Hallgren.
“After the soft tissue had rotted away, the skulls were removed and placed on the stakes before being placed in the shallow lake.”
Another theory is that the mounted skulls are trophies brought back from battles with other settlers in the area.
“It may have been a way to prove one's success on the battlefield,” Hallgren explained.
Further analysis is currently underway to determine if the bones are remains of locals or people with a distant geographic origin. Using DNA and other laboratory techniques, archaeologists will also try to find out if the remains found at the site belong to a single family group or persons unrelated to one another.
Hallgren said that, as far as he knew, the discovery of human skulls mounted on stakes from this period of history was unprecedented.
“There are other examples of human heads being mounted on stakes, but most of the finds are from the colonial period,” he said.
The Kanaljorden settlement excavation site has been ongoing since 2009 and is located about 500 metres from Motala’s central train station. The site dates from a part of the Stone Age known as the Mesolithic period, at which time the area around Motala was deemed an almost perfect place to live.
There was no agriculture in the area, however, with settlers instead surviving by fishing, hunting, and gathering.
Another dig site nearby in Motala gained worldwide attention in 2010 when archaeologists uncovered what was believed to be a Stone Age dildo.
The object, which measured 10-11 centimetres (4 inches) long and 2 centimetres in diameter, had been fashioned from a stag’s antler.
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Excavation of islands around Britain to establish origins of Neolithic period
September 21, 2011
Archaeologists at the University of Liverpool are investigating three island groups around Britain to further understanding of why, in approximately 4,000 BC, humans altered their lifestyle from hunting and gathering to farming the land.
Some scholars believe that this change occurred due to colonists from the continent moving into Britain, bringing farming and pottery-making skills with them, but others argue that the indigenous population of Britain adopted this new lifestyle gradually on their own terms.
To shed new light on the debate, archaeologists, in collaboration with the University of Southampton, are excavating three island groups in the western seaways and producing oceanographic models to understand what sailing across this area would have been like in 4,000 BC. The team will also construct a database of 5th and 4th millennium occupation sites.
The work aims to use evidence gathered from the seaways to answer significant questions about the processes and timing of the transition from a society that hunted wild animals to people that farmed the land as their primary means of survival.
Recent archaeological findings, such as what is believed to be French pottery in Scotland, have suggested that colonisation from the continent could be one possible explanation for this shift in lifestyle behaviour. Study has shown that the first colonist are likely to have arrived by travelling across the western seaways, but there has been very little excavation of the islands around this sea route to prove this theory, as previous research has tended to focus on the mainland rather than the seaways.
Dr. Duncan Garrow, from the University’s School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, explains: “Neolithic is a term used for the period in our past when the shift from hunting and gathering wild animals and plants to a farming lifestyle occurred. This change happened at different times throughout the world, beginning around 10,000 BC in the Middle East and around 4,000 BC in Britain. How this process occurred, however, is still very much debated.
“Archaeological findings, such as the bones of farm cattle from the 5th millennium BC and European pottery, and advances in radiocarbon techniques have given new life to the theory that European colonists settled in Britain and brought farming practices with them. To understand how possible this could have been, however, we need to turn our attention away from the mainland and towards the seas that form an important travel link between the islands around Britain.
“We are excavating on the Channel Islands, Isles of Scilly and in the Outer Hebrides, which form part of an important maritime zone that surprisingly has been given little scholarly attention in the past. We are constructing a database of all known 5th and 4th millennium occupation sites in and around each island group and starting a programme of radiocarbon dating to understand the chronology of activity within the western seaways.
“Our oceanographic work aims to explore the environmental context within which this transition took place and how seafaring activities impacted on people’s lifestyles. We hope that the environmental data will also be valuable to oceanographers and geographers for studying how the sea has changed over the centuries.”
The team will also make their findings available to school children and the general public through the development of a series of web resources, including a navigation game on prehistoric seafaring.
Provided by University of Liverpool
Uncovering a Welathy Gaullish Farmstead
A team of archaeologists from Inrap are currently excavating an important Gaulish site located in Wissous, northern France, which was occupied from the late Bronze Age (800BC).
A high status farmstead dating to around 200BC covers two hectares of the site and is of trapezoidal plan enclosed by two parallel ditches measuring 3 metres wide and 1.5 metres deep. The interior of the enclosure is split into two distinct areas by a 7m wide ditch which is almost 3m deep and separates the residential area to the east from the agricultural space to the west.
The site lies within the region that was once Parisii tribal territory and is located close to an ancient road that linked to Cenabum Lutetia (Orleans). The farmstead was located at the centre of a regional trade network and bears all the hallmarks of belonging to a wealthy local family.
The residential area contains evidence for two successive sub-rectangular buildings, both with footprints of approximately 200 m². The diameters of the postholes suggest that the structures could have supported two floors, and although no evidence of the roof survives, it was likely that it was covered in either thatch or wooden shingles. The buildings were constructed using a solid wooden framework and infilled with wattle and daub.
Evidence has been found for cattle, pig and horse husbandry, and the discovery of metal pruning implements suggest that the farm may have had an orchard. Craft activities consisted of weaving – loom weights and spinning whorls have been found – and metal working evidenced from the slag and furnace material recovered.
The ditches and midden deposits produced several items of broken jewellery and Parisii coinage which appear to have been deliberately thrown away rather than re-cycled, implying an affluent family who could afford to replace rather than repair or re-use. Significant quantities of broken Roman amphora (Dressel I) were also found in the midden deposits, which again emphasises the implied wealth of the occupants of this site, who could afford to import expensive Italian wines.
Large quantities of cattle and horse skulls have been found dumped into various surrounding ditches, however, two possible ritual deposits have been discovered at either end of the central dividing ditch. The first is composed of ceramic and copper items along with a Gaulish warrior’s bronze torc. The second deposit is still under investigation.
To date there have been no formal burials found, but human skull fragments have been discovered in the ditches.
This site has given a unique insight into a remarkably long-lived and wealthy farmstead which traces its origins to the late Bronze Age and continued as an important local centre into the Gallo-Roman period some 600 years later.
Read more >> http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/09/2011/uncovering-a-wealthy-gaulish-farmstead#ixzz1Z0WScQP7
Archaeologists uncover evidence of large ancient shipyard near Rome
22 September 2011
University of Southampton and British School at Rome (BSR) archaeologists, leading an international excavation of Portus – the ancient port of Rome, believe they have discovered a large Roman shipyard.
The team, working with the Italian Archaeological Superintendancy of Rome, has uncovered the remains of a massive building close to the distinctive hexagonal basin or ‘harbour’, at the centre of the port complex.
University of Southampton Professor and Portus Project Director, Simon Keay comments, “At first we thought this large rectangular building was used as a warehouse, but our latest excavation has uncovered evidence that there may have been another, earlier use, connected to the building and maintenance of ships.
“Few Roman Imperial shipyards have been discovered and, if our identification is correct, this would be the largest of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean.”
It has long been known that Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Imperial period and the Portus Project1 team has been investigating the port’s significance over a number of years. Until now, no major shipyard building for Rome has been identified, apart from the possibility of one on the Tiber near Monte Testaccio, and a smaller one recently claimed for the neighbouring river port at Ostia.
A recent new grant of £640,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has made this latest phase of excavation possible. These AHRC funds, together with financial support from the Archaeological Superintendancy of Rome, the University of Southampton and the British School at Rome have allowed extensive excavation to be undertaken at the site this year.
The huge building the team has discovered dates from the 2nd century AD and would have stood c. 145 metres long and 60 metres wide – an area larger than a football pitch. In places, its roof was up to 15 metres high, or more than three times the height of a double-decker bus. Large brick-faced concrete piers or pillars, some three metres wide and still visible in part, supported at least eight parallel bays with wooden roofs.
“This was a vast structure which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building lead us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities,” comments Southampton’s Professor Keay, who also leads the archaeological activity of the BSR.
Investigations by his team in 2009 concentrated on the remains of an ‘Imperial palace’ and amphitheatre-shaped building, which lie adjacent to this building. He argues that together these formed a key complex where an imperial official was charged with coordinating the movement of ships and cargoes within the port. Furthermore he believes that the shipyard was an integral part of this.
Additional supporting evidence comes in the form of inscriptions discovered at Portus referring to the existence of a guild of shipbuilders or corpus fabrum navalium portensium in the port. Also, a mosaic, which is now in the Vatican Museum, but once adorned the floor of a villa on the ancient Via Labicana (a road leading south east of Rome), depicts the façade of a building similar to the one at Portus, clearly showing a ship in each bay.
“The discovery of this building has major implications for our understanding of the significance of the hexagonal basin or harbour at Portus and its role within the overall scheme of the port complex,” says Professor Keay.
He continues, “We need to stress there is no evidence yet of ramps which may have been needed to launch newly constructed ships into the waters of the hexagonal basin. These may lie beneath the early 20th century embankment, which now forms this side of the basin. Discovering these would prove our hypothesis beyond reasonable doubt, although they may no longer exist,” says Professor Keay.
Geophysicists from the Archaeological Prospection Services of Southampton and from the British School at Rome have been making geophysical surveys of the area around the building to gain additional information about its still partially buried structure. Members of Southampton’s Archaeological Computing Research Group, led by Dr Graeme Earl, have also created a computer graphic simulation, to provide both valuable visual data on its layout and construction and an impression of how it appeared and may have been used.
Professor Keay’s team is also working with Angelo Pellegrino from the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome to extend earlier excavations by the Portus Project, and the restoration of standing structures, relating to ‘the Imperial palace’, to better understand key issues about its layout and development.
The international team is planning further investigations at Portus to find out more about this fascinating, significant site, which holds an enormous amount of information about the activities and trade of Rome.
Background information about the building
The building uncovered by the team has undergone many changes since its construction in the time of the Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). Excavation within one of the bays has revealed that its use changed over the centuries – once 90 years into its life with the construction of a series of inner partition walls, and then again in the late 5th century AD when changes were made to allow the storage of grain. In the early to mid-6th century AD, parts of the building were systematically demolished, probably as a defensive measure during wars between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths (AD 535-553).
Notes for editors
The Portus Project is a collaboration between the University of Southampton, the British School at Rome and the University of Cambridge, which aims to answer major research questions about Portus, the port of Imperial Rome. It is led by the University of Southampton’s Professor Simon Keay. For more information: www.portusproject.org
For more information about the Archaeological Computing Research Group: www.soton.ac.uk/archaeology/acrg/
Pompeii shows its true colours
'Pompeiian red' was created when gases from Vesuvius reacted with yellow paint, research reveals
Charlotte Higgins, Chief arts writer
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 September 2011 18.21 BST
When word spread to Britain of the sensational discovery of the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 18th century, "Pompeiian red" became the favoured colour for smart dining-rooms – as it remains today.
But, it seems, it may be time to get out the paint chart. According to new research presented to Sapienza University in Rome last week, large swaths of the vivid "Pompeiian red" frescoes in the town actually began life as yellow – and were turned red by the gases emitted from Vesuvius as it erupted in AD 79.
Experts have long realised that some of the characteristic vivid reds of the frescoes in Pompeii and Herculaneum were originally yellow. But a new study, conducted by Italy's National Institute of Optics, suggests the sheer extent of the colour change.
Sergio Omarini, who presented the institute's findings, said: "At the moment, there are 246 walls perceived as red, and 57 as yellow. But based on the new research, the numbers must have been, respectively, 165 and 138.
"The discovery allows us to rethink the original appearance of the city in radically different way from how we are used to – in which red, indeed 'Pompeiian red', has been prevalent."
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, professor of classics at Cambridge University, and author of Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, said: "One of the ironies of this is that red was constantly forged in antiquity. Red was an extremely expensive and valued colour. The proper, bright red was based on minium [red lead] imported from Armenia. What we often think of 'Pompeiian red', though, was a poor man's version, made by giving yellow walls a red wash."
The various reds of Pompeii – the true, expensive red; the cheap version; and that caused by the gas emissions – can be hard even for experts to tell apart, he said. Sometimes, though, the latter can be identified by "tide marks": "you can see a swath of red on a wall that gradually smudges into yellow".
Perhaps the most famous set of red frescoes from Pompeii are those in the so-called "Villa of the Mysteries", in which an enigmatic set of figures perform arcane rituals on a scarlet background.
According to Wallace-Hadrill, these walls almost certainly started out red – although their brightness and sheen are down to aggressive restoration in the early 20th century. "That red is probably an expensive, real red," he said. "It's certainly too soon to throw out the idea of Pompeiian red as a fabulous colour."
Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University and author of Pompeii, said: "I am always a bit suspicious of these claims. We know that some of the red was once yellow, but I'm not sure that we can be certain about the proportions. What is certainly true, though, is that the heat had some effect on the colours; it's another case in which we can see that Pompeii was not the time capsule we sometimes imagine it to be."
The discovery of apparently pristine houses in Pompeii, Herculaneum and elsewhere had an enormous effect on the history of taste in Britain. Generations of gentlemen were influenced by visiting Italy on the Grand Tour, not least the architect Sir John Soane, who saw the excavations in 1780. Judging by his frequent use of the colour in decorative schemes, "Pompeiian red was his favourite colour", according to Tim Knox, director of Sir John Soane's Museum.
Amanda Vickery, professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, said: "The Grand Tour shaped the cultural parameters of the ruling elite for 150 years. It was like a gap year, and it stamped on these men what good taste was."
Scottish team to digitally document Chinese heritage site
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2011 | FEATURED, NEWS
One of China’s most important heritage sites is to be digitally recorded for future generations by a team of Scottish experts. A delegation will be travelling out to The Eastern Qing Tombs in China next year to begin work at the site.
In use from 1666 to 1911, the Tombs are amongst the most spectacular in the world and are the resting place for some of China’s most famous emperors.
The trip is part of the Scottish 10 project, a joint venture between Historic Scotland and Glasgow School of Art to digitally document all five of Scotland’s world heritage sites and five international sites – the first being the Presidents Heads at Mount Rushmore in the United States.
Each site is digitally scanned using the most advanced laser technology, to create exceptionally accurate, 3 dimensional archival records of these spectacular sites. The finished material can be used to monitor changes to the structures as well as providing the basis for remote access, education and interpretation resources to allow a much wider audience to experience these sites.
The team will be focussing on one of the site’s most famous tombs - that of Xiao Ling. The tomb was the first to be built and is the biggest and most elaborate on the site and hugely influenced the style of those that followed. They will also be recording the Jingling Tomb of Emperor Kangxi, often regarded as the greatest Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.
Each site in the Scottish 10 project poses unique challenges in terms of the terrain, climate and geography of the site
It is anticipated that the team will be on site for two weeks to digitally record the tombs and plans are already underway for the trip. David Mitchell, Head of Conservation for Historic Scotland said;
“It’s a huge privilege to be digitally recording this fascinating site.
“Each site in the Scottish 10 project poses unique challenges in terms of the terrain, climate and geography of the site.
“Having experienced extremes of both temperature and climate as well as the logistics of conducting laser scanning several hundred feet up in previous projects, our team are well versed to operating in different climates. We are very much looking forward to working with our Chinese partners on the site.“
The team will be using terrestrial laser scanners, GNSS devices and 360% photography to digitally create a detailed 3D model, before analysis and processing is done at the Digital Design Studio in Glasgow.
Doug Pritchard, Head of Visualisation at Glasgow School of Art said;
“The technology can record these sites in a detail never achieved before.
“There are numerous benefits to this from learning more about how a building was constructed through to being able to decipher inscriptions and markings which reveal more about a buildings past.
“These buildings were built at a time of great change in China and have the potential to tell us much more about this fascinating period in time.”
Scottish Ten website: http://www.scottishten.org/index.htm
Read more >> http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/09/2011/scottish-team-to-digitally-document-chinese-heritage-site#ixzz1Z0X0sd5c
Irene uncovers Native American burial site
9/23/2011 11:45:55 AM ET
When the powerful Tropical Storm Irene swept through, the storm unearthed a mystery in Branford, Connecticut.
Part of Linden Avenue collapsed from the storm and neighbors of a beach there found what they believed were human bones protruding from the embankment that the storm eroded and called Branford police.
Those bones, experts have determined, likely came from an ancient Native American burial site.
Police responded to the eroded area on August 29 and brought the bones to the Connecticut State Medical Examiner’s Office, who determined the bones were human, and possibly of Native American origin.
"They were femurs, some rib bones, parts of the pelvis," said Running Fox, a member of the Quinnipiac Tribal Council.
He said the unearthed bones were remains of two members of the Totoket Quinnipiac Tribe.
Over the years, ancient arrowheads and stone tools have been found in Branford.
Over the last few weeks, Branford Police and the town’s engineer, Janice Plaziak, have worked closely with archaeologists and members of the Native American Heritage Advisory Council to maintain the integrity and security of the site until a proper method of returning the area back to its pre-storm condition could be determined.
"Our major concern during these preceding weeks was to maintain the honor and respect of those Native Americans who may have been laid to rest in this area and work closely with their ancestors to maintain the dignity they deserve," Police Chief Kevin Halloran said.
A special burial ceremony was held Thursday to return the remains to their rightful place.
"It gives us an opportunity to thank the creator and ask him to watch over them so they will never be disturbed again," Fox said.
800-Year-Old Remains of “Witch” Discovered
September 26, 2011
Female skeleton of 800-year-old suspected witch, due to the circumstance of her burial, uncovered in Piombino, near Lucca in Tuscany.
The archaeological dig took place in a graveyard amongst additional women ranging in ages from 25 to 30; all of whom are buried in simple, shallow graves with no coffins.
Seven nails are driven through her jaw and thirteen nails lie surrounding the skeleton, which evidently pinned her clothes to the ground.
L’Aquila’s University Archaeologist, Alfonso Forgione is the leader of the team that were originally trying to find the burial place of the St Cerbonius; a bishop that died over 1,500 years ago. He is convinced the women were alleged as witches given the conditions they were buried in.
Forgione said: “It’s a very unusual discovery and at the same time fascinating. I have never seen anything like this before. I’m convinced because of the nails found in the jaw and around the skeleton the woman was a witch.”
The team’s second skeleton was found to be buried correspondingly, however with 17 dice surrounding her body. 17 dice is a game that women were prohibited to play 800 years ago. Also, the number 17 itself arranged in Latin means ‘vixi’, Latin for ‘I have lived’, which is a euphemism for ‘I am dead’.
Italy is known for its supernatural finds; two years ago the remains of a medieval woman’s skull was discovered in Venice with a stone wedged through the mouth; a traditional method people used to deal with alleged vampires to prevent them rising from the dead.
The team of archaeologists, however, cannot explain why the women, if suspected of witchcraft, were buried in sacred soil as their section is the site of an 800-year-old church.
Forgione mentions: “The only possible explanation is that perhaps both women came from influential families and were not peasant class, and so because of their class and connections were able to secure burial in consecrated Christian ground.”
By Davina Qureshi
Huge Silver Haul Found On WWII Shipwreck
7:38pm UK, Monday September 26, 2011
A team of shipwreck explorers has discovered the largest known haul of precious metals ever found in the sea.
Odyssey Marine Exploration located the wreck of the SS Gairsoppa in international waters, around 300 miles off the coast of Ireland.
The British cargo ship was sunk by a German U Boat in February 1941 while in operation as part of the war effort.
It was torpedoed two months after leaving India with its cargo.
The vessel had run low on fuel and became separated from the rest of its convoy when it was spotted by the Germans.
Only one of the 32 crew who managed to escape in lifeboats survived.
It is believed it was carrying more than seven million ounces of silver, worth £600,000 according to the valuation at the time. That is £132m at today's prices.
The wreck is 4,700 metres (2.92 miles) below the surface.
Video and photo footage of the Gairsoppa were obtained by the team after sending a remotely operated vehicle to the wreck.
Neil Cunningham Dobson, Odyssey's Principal Marine Archaeologist, said: "Even though records indicate that the lifeboats were launched before the ship sank, sadly most of her crew did not survive the long journey to shore.
"By finding this shipwreck, and telling the story of its loss, we pay tribute to the brave merchant sailors who lost their lives."
The contract to recover the wreck was awarded to Odyssey by the government in 2010.
As part of the deal, the company will retain 80% of the value of the silver recovered.
Wartime wreck to give up £148m in lost silver bullion
By Cahal Milmo, Chief Reporter
Monday, 26 September 2011
The Gairsoppa, 4,700 metres deep in the Atlantic, will be explored by robotic submarines to retrieve bullion and artefacts
The largest ever consignment of precious metal found in the sea - 200 tons of silver worth £148m - has been discovered along with the wreck of a British cargo ship sunk during the Second World War by a German U-boat.
Odyssey Marine, an American underwater archaeology and salvage firm, will announce the discovery today along with plans to recover the bullion as part of a contract with the British Government which will see the company retain 80 per cent of the value of the cargo.
The SS Gairsoppa, an ageing steamer belonging to the British India Steam Navigation Company which was ordered into the merchant navy fleet at the outbreak of war, was sunk by a single torpedo in February 1941 as the heavily-laden vessel hit heavy weather in the Atlantic and tried to reach safety in the Irish Republic.
Some of the 85-strong crew are thought to have made it to lifeboats as they came under fire from machine guns on board the Nazi submarine but by the time the survivors reached the Cornish coast after drifting for 13 days and over more than 300 miles only one sailor - Second Officer Richard Ayres - was still alive.
The well-preserved wreck of the 412ft steel-hulled ship was found by Odyssey this summer nearly 4,700 metres below the notoriously inhospitable waters of the North Atlantic. Remarkably, the vessel settled on the seabed in a fully upright position with the cargo holds open, meaning it is possible to retrieve the bullion by accessing the hatches with remote-controlled robotic submarines.
The Gairsoppa was carrying seven million ounces or about 200 tons of silver to help fund the war effort after sailing from Calcutta on a voyage due to end in Liverpool. It sailed via Freetown in Sierra Leone, a major staging point for convoys in the Second World War.
Under a contract with the Department of Transport, which inherited responsibility for the ship, Odyssey will be permitted to retain 80 per cent of the value of the silver in return for taking on the commercial risk and expense of locating the Gairsoppa. If the company is able to bring to the surface all the bullion when the planned recovery begins next summer, it would make the company about £118m at today’s prices.
Andrew Craig, the senior project manager, said: “We’ve accomplished the first phase of this project – the location and identification of the target shipwreck – and now we’re hard at work planning for the recovery phase. Given the orientation and condition of the shipwreck, we are extremely confident that our planned salvage equipment will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo.”
The bullion was a mixture of privately-owned silver insured by the British government and state-owned coinage and ingots. Researchers working for Odyssey have used records including the Gairsoppa’s cargo manifest and documents from the Lloyd’s War Losses Register detailing an insurance pay out to establish the quantity of the silver on board.
Odyssey, which is currently locked in a court battle with the Spanish government over the ownership of 500,000 silver coins which it recovered close to the remains of a vessel claimed by Madrid, has previously attracted criticism from some archaeologists who argue that historical ship wrecks should be left untouched.
But the company insists its work is done to stringent archaeological standards and helps preserve knowledge that otherwise be lost when wrecks are in locations where damage is caused to the seabed by fishing trawlers.
The Gairsoppa was identified after a painstaking examination of the wreckage for tell-tale clues including the torpedo damage and the presence of large tea chests, part of the 1,700 tons of tea it was carrying.
The ship was part of a slow-moving convoy of ageing vessels which left Freetown on 31 January 1941 but the Gairsoppa, labouring under its heavy cargo, began to get left behind in heavy weather and, with coal supplies running low, its captain was forced to leave the convoy to try to reach sanctuary in Galway.
It was sunk at 10.30pm on 17 February 1941 by legendary U-boat commander Ernst Mengersen. The force of the torpedo explosion snapped the wireless antennae, leaving the crew unable to send an SOS message and forcing them to try to get into lifeboats under ruthless machine gun fire from the submarine.
It is not known how many sailors made it into the lifeboats but the icy North Atlantic conditions soon took their toll on the survivors. In a remarkable feat of endurance, Mr Ayres, who lived until 1992 and was awarded an MBE for his exploits, made it to the Lizard in Cornwall in a boat carrying the bodies of four comrades.
But the final moments of the voyage nearly ended in disaster when the drifting lifeboat overturned close to shore, throwing a semi-conscious Mr Ayres into the water. Fortunately, the incident was spotted by three schoolgirl evacuees watching from the cliffs above, who summoned help to pull the sole survivor from the waves.
Both Odyssey and the Department of Transport it was unlikely that any human remains would be found in the Gairsoppa because of the depth of the wreckage and the location of the silver in a cargo hold where none of the crew would have been present.
The company said it nonetheless had contingency plans in place to deal respectfully with any remains should they be found.
Neil Cunningham Dobson, Odyssey’s principal archaeologist, whose father worked for the same shipping line as the Gairsoppa, said: “Sadly most of the crew did not survive the long journey to shore. By finding this shipwreck, and telling the story of its loss, we pay tribute to the brave merchant sailors who lost their lives.”