Forensic technology protects shipwreck treasures

Underwater sign indicates a forensically marked site. Image: MSDS Marine

Historic treasures at shipwreck sites are being forensically marked underwater making them traceable and better protected from theft.

In a UK first, artefacts at some of the 57 protected wreck sites in English waters, including cannons, are being marked by the forensic technology.

Announced by Historic England to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, the project was kick-started in 2021, when damage to site of the 17th century Dutch warship Klein Hollandia was documented by divers from the Nautical Archaeology Society.

This led to a joint decision by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Historic England to support further investigation of the wreck, found off the Sussex coast. They also agreed to continue to work towards new technology to make artefacts traceable, reduce the risk of heritage theft and better protect underwater archaeological sites.

"Underwater forensic marking of artefacts is a great leap forward in helping to protect our shipwrecks."

Duncan Wilson, Historic England

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. International collaboration like this is so important for preserving our shared maritime heritage.”

A diver applies protective marking solution to a bronze cannon on the Klein Hollandia protected wreck site. Image: MSDS Marine / Martin Davies

Mark Harrison, head of heritage crime strategy at Historic England said, “This will act as a clear deterrent to those looking to unlawfully lift and remove historic material from Protected Wreck Sites.

"If someone breaks the law and removes any property, the new markings will give police the ability to link the offender to the crime scene and implement criminal proceedings.”

Developed by MSDS Marine over eight years, the forensic technology is similar to the kind of traceable products used to mark lead on church roofs at risk of theft and trace artefacts back to a particular site.

Alison James, heritage and systems manager at MSDS Marine said, “This protective marking project is a gamechanger for maritime archaeology and how authorities protect sites underwater.

"This year is the 50th anniversary of the legislation that enables the protection of wreck sites and it seems completely fitting that this product has finally been deployed to help protect them for the next 50.”

Underwater signs at a protected site. Image: MSDS Marine

There are 37,000 known shipwrecks off England’s coastline, a legacy of Britain’s industrial past and over 6,000 years of maritime trade and warfare.

The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 grants the highest level of protection to 57 of them. This means that only licensed divers can dive them and their contents are protected by law.