Underwater Cultural Heritage in Oceania

Underwater Cultural Heritage encompasses all traces of human existence that lie or were lying under water and have a cultural, archaeological or historical character. Over the centuries, thousands of ships, entire cities, and even landscapes have been swallowed by the waves. Their remains now constitute a precious heritage, which attracts increasing attention from the scientific community and the public at large. Scientists are finding more and more unique traces of the history of humanity under water.

The Pacific Ocean contains a particular wealth of submerged traces of human existence. It spans three continents - Asia, Australia and America. Its archipelagos and islands are stretched over a great distance and many of them were populated by humans very early on, and underwent processes of substantial change by European colonialism. Underwater sites in Oceania span human history from the Stone Age to the Atomic Age. As well as terrestrial traces of early human colonization, underwater cultural heritage sites including ancient sunken villages, wrecks and ancient fish traps offer a deep and colourful insight into the past.

Human activity on these islands, from the large continent of Australia to the smallest island of Micronesia, was always closely related to the water. The great variety of submerged archaeological sites is now exceptionally valuable for the understanding and interpretation of the region’s and the world’s history. Its submerged traces of humans on the seabed range from ancient vestiges of holy sites to remains of ships and aircraft, ports, fish traps and villages. Shipwrecks are abundant and encompass the relics of small fishing boats as well as of large battleships from World War II. They can provide precious historical information and are, like a time capsule, a complete snapshot of the technology and life on board at the time of sinking.

Due to the cultural richness of underwater heritage in the region and its complex history, the protection of these sites is of high importance for the region. It offers a chance for development and defines cultural identity. The sheer multitude of submerged archaeological sites attracts tourists and passionate divers, contributing to the economies of many small archipelagos.

This book draws on different perspectives and a rich body of international expertise and research. It has been prepared in the wake of a significant regional meeting, which took place from 18 to 19 December 2009 in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

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Edited by Ulrike Guérin, Barbara Egger and Vidha Penalva

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