PROTECTING UNDERWATER HERITAGE
Paris, October 29 (No.2001-118)
- The pillage and destruction of ancient shipwrecks and sunken archaeological
sites by treasure hunters seeking gold and other valuables may be outlawed under
the terms of an international treaty under discussion as of this morning by
UNESCO’s 188 Member States.
The Convention on the
Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage will be submitted for adoption to
the 31st session of UNESCO’s General Conference, the Organization’s supreme
governing body. It aims to ban pillaging for commercial exploitation and gives
priority to in situ preservation of heritage that has been underwater for at
least 100 years.
“Protecting our underwater
heritage is extremely important and increasingly urgent as no site or shipwreck
is now out of bounds for treasure hunters. New technologies have made deep-water
wrecks easily accessible and these technologies are getting cheaper,” warns
Lyndel Prott, the director of UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage Division.
According to estimates by
commercial salvors, there are some three million undiscovered shipwrecks
scattered across the world’s oceans. Even the figures for the known wrecks are
impressive. The Northern Shipwrecks Database for example contains 65,000 ship
loss records for North America alone from 1500 AD to the present. The Dictionary
of Disasters at Sea by Charles Hocking (1969) lists 12,542 sailing ships and war
vessels lost between 1824 and 1962. And, according to the Museum of Archaeology
in Lisbon, some 850 ships have gone to the bottom of the seas surrounding the
Azores since 1522. At least 90 of them were Spanish galleons and another 40 of
them Portuguese Indiamen.
Then there are sunken cities
such as the trading town and pirate stronghold of Port Royal in Jamaica, which
disappeared beneath the waves after an earthquake in 1692. Or the remnants of
ancient civilisations, such as the fabulous Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt,
and the Neolithic villages being discovered under the Black Sea, which some
believe could help explain Noah’s great flood.
These treasures of cultural
heritage are under serious threat. Technology now allows extraordinary access to
the ocean depths for determined and well-financed treasure hunters. And the
potential rewards are tantalizing. In 1985, American salvor Mel Fisher
discovered the wreck of the Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank off
the Florida Keys in 1622 with her cargo of gold, silver and jewellery worth an
estimated US$400 million. Christie’s, one of the biggest international auction
houses, has become the world specialist in what it calls “material recovered
legally under license from historical shipwrecks”.
In 1986, it raised US$16
million from the sale of 3,786 lots of Chinese porcelain and gold ingots
salvaged from the Dutch-flagged Geldermahlsen, which was wrecked in 1752 in the
South China Sea. And in 1992, the sale of the porcelain known as the Vung Tao
Cargo, raised from a wreck off the southern coast of Vietnam, brought in almost
US$7.2 million. By 1997, at least six international treasure hunting companies
had set up base in Portugal to exploit the immensely rich underwater heritage
off its coast.
Even amateur sports divers with
scuba equipment can now join the chase in shallower coastal waters and millions
are doing so. As far back as 1974, studies concluded that all the classical
wrecks off the Turkish coastline had already been tampered with.
In the Philippines, another
stopover for the Spaniards and an important maritime trade link with Southeast
Asia for more than 1,000 years, local fishermen are recruited by foreign
companies to look for goods from the countless wrecks on the seabed there.
The result of this new “gold-rush” is the
terrible destruction of whole chapters of human history.
“Treasure hunting is driven
by commercial logic and not by the concern for increasing our knowledge of
history,” explains Mounir Bouchenaki, Assistant Director-General for Culture
at UNESCO. “Time is money, so the treasure hunters must work quickly to raise
as many artefacts as possible and sell them. An archaeologist can spend ten
years or more studying and excavating a ship, conserving its objects and
publishing its findings. We gain an enormous amount of information and knowledge
from this work. With treasure hunters, all of this is lost; records are not kept
and artefacts are spread around the world in private collections. This is
tragic, for humanity as a whole. Where there is no knowledge, there is no
When a site is excavated properly though,
everybody profits. The archaeological survey of the Pandora, which sank off
Australia’s Queensland coast in 1791, for example, helped complete the story
of the mutiny on the Bounty and the extraordinary search for the mutineers.
In Sweden, the wreck of the
17th century warship Wasa is one of the country’s biggest tourist drawcards,
and underwater excavations at Bodrum in Turkey made it one of the country’s
most visited sites.
On the other hand, the
commercial recovery of the Geldermahlsen’s porcelain not only led to the
destruction of the wreck, but the $US16 million raised from the sale of her
cargo was a one-off profit.
States are increasingly aware
of the importance of their underwater heritage and many have taken measures to
protect and manage historic shipwrecks and archaeological sites within their
territorial waters. However, there is no comprehensive legal coverage for those
in international waters, like the Titanic, which are basically up for grabs to
those who find them.
UNESCO’s new Convention
on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage seeks to change this. Some
350 experts from more than 90 countries worked for four years to finalize the
draft document, which covers “all traces of human existence having a cultural,
historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally
under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years”.
Apart from restricting the
activities of treasure hunters, those nations that adopt the Convention will be
expected to “impose sanctions for violations” of it that “shall be
adequate in severity in securing compliance”.
The instrument binds states
parties “to prevent the entry into their territory, the dealing in, or the
possession of, underwater cultural heritage illicitly exported and/or recovered”
and gives them the power to seize such booty.
One of the Convention’s most
controversial measures recommends the preservation in situ of underwater
heritage. If material is recovered, however, it should be “deposited,
conserved and managed in a manner that ensures its long-term preservation.”
Critics from the salvage
industry argue that such a measure will only deprive the public at large from
access to their heritage, and lead to its destruction, by natural forces. Not
so, says Robert Grenier, the chairman of the International Committee on
Underwater Heritage of ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites)
which has worked closely with UNESCO on the draft Convention. “It has been
well demonstrated that shipwrecks can last thousands of years underwater as
valid and fruitful archaeological sites. If shipwrecks are seriously damaged by
natural destruction in given areas, and I have witnessed this myself, the damage
generally occurs well within the first century of immersion. After that initial
period, the degradation can be more or less stopped or slowed down until the
site reaches an equilibrium and stabilizes itself for centuries.”
The Convention also urges
states to promote their underwater heritage and encourage “responsible
non-intrusive access” to such sites. It also stresses the need to raise public
awareness of the importance and significance of underwater cultural heritage.
Once adopted by UNESCO’s
General Conference, the Convention will be submitted to Member States. It will
enter into force only after 20 countries have become party to it.