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Paris, October 29 - 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 memory."

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.

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