3 min read
Under the sea: the X-ray tech that helps find ‘extraordinary discoveries’
But one Yorkshire startup is changing the way that we look for lost relics and rarities. Merlin Burrows, based in Harrogate, has discovered a fascinating new way to look for – and find – these missing items.
We sat down with Bruce Blackburn, CEO of Merlin Burrows, for a chat.
You’re an interesting startup. What’s your ‘elevator pitch’?
Bruce Blackburn: Merlin Burrows is a tech research company which uses satellite imagery and our own proprietary tech to do deep scans of the land and sea.
By combining this with incredibly thorough research – everything from ships’ manifests to captains’ logs, old books and academic research – we can find caches of all sorts; from ships and swords, to buried ancient kings.
Who is the team that you are working with this?
Tim Akers is our brilliant treasure discoverer. He’s the head of Research at Merlin Burrows. He’s basically a genius who has dedicated himself to finding a trove of extraordinary discoveries over the years.
How does your tech work?
I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you! In simple terms, we turn the LandSat5 and LandSat8 image data that Google used for Google Earth and Maps into X-rays. We reprocess the image data packets.
An easy way to think of it is if you think about photographs. Our eyes can only see a small amount of the spectrum. If we take a photograph, that photograph focuses on what our eyes see. But what about if we wanted to capture information about the particles between the camera lens and the face that we’re trying to photograph? They’re there and cameras can pick them up if we choose to focus on that – that’s what our technology does.
We’ve called this technology SATSCAN and trademarked it. It’s proprietary tech. We’ve also created a little spinout called Scanning 4 Planning which helps with planning applications or site permissions in potential areas of interest for the heritage sector. We can find things as small as a 5p piece in a field.
What has been your most exciting find?
Last year we discovered the Bonhomme Richard 1779. It’s an American warship which was wrecked off the coast of Filey in Yorkshire, captained by John Paul Jones, who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the American Navy.
The Bonhomme Richard sank during The Battle of Flamborough Head, in a fierce battle between them and HMS Serapis. With the Bonhomme Richard already on fire and sinking the Serapis, Captain Richard Pearson hailed John Paul Jones to surrender to which he replied with the immortal quote, “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!”.
“With the Bonhomme Richard already on fire and sinking the Serapis, Captain Richard Pearson hailed John Paul Jones to surrender to which he replied with the immortal quote, ‘Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!’.”
Ironically, despite the poor condition of the Bonhomme Richard, Jones won the sea battle by boarding and seizing the Serapis from the English and used it against the English for the remainder of the war.
The Bonhomme Richard eventually sank and has remained lost until now, despite many excursions from the Americans desperate to find the relic of this victory over the British in the revolution.
We’ve done 24 dives on the site over the last three years and found timber which has evidence of burning, guns and cannon balls. The ship’s bells, rigging and the lion figurehead are visible in images of the site.
The potential for this find is amazing for Yorkshire; it could boost the tourism trade, bringing in visitors from America. It could really build on our Welcome to Yorkshire brand, and the impacts will be numerous across sectors.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
Merlin Burrows is not a salvage or excavation company. We do extensive research; in fact, 99% of the work is about the research. There’s 1GB of written data for each find – we use our tech to find where things are but we don’t then have the money to go and dig them up. There’s so much cost involved.
“The idea that a tinpot scrappy startup could find something that the Americans had spent years and £200m on seems ridiculous to some.”
Then there’s the complexities of the stakeholders involved. For example, in our King John’s baggage train find, we’ve had to speak to 75 stakeholders – from the Home Secretary and Chiefs of Police to Historical England and more. It took three years to get permission from the landowner, who wanted to know everything from the site information to the shovels we were using.
What’s it like being a Yorkshire startup?
It can be pretty tough, actually. When we found the Bonhomme Richard, there was this definite feeling of skepticism from many official organisations. The idea that a tinpot scrappy startup could find something that the Americans had spent years and £200m on seems ridiculous to some.
The idea of disruptive technology hasn’t reached the upper echelons of Historic England, but you at Tech Nation know – it’s only a matter of time before everything gets upended by tech.
What’s on the horizon for Merlin Burrows?
The plan is to choose a project, carry it out and prove the concept once and for all. We’re currently bootstrapped and it’s pretty challenging. We are looking for investors to work with us on a project-by-project basis. We’ve got £5bn of finds in the pipeline around the world, we just need to find the support for just one to validate the tech.