05.09.2012 - Culture Sector

The potential of the Gulf's underwater heritage surfaced

Wreck covered by corals ©B. Jeffrey

1st Meeting for the Gulf on the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Manama, Bahrain, 16-17 October 2012

This UNESCO sub-regional meeting, gathering participants from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, aims at discussing the development of underwater archaeology in the region, capacity-building, research, cooperation and the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

In the Gulf Region underwater archaeological research is still developing. However the potential of this discipline is immense.

Indeed, for 90% of human existence, sea levels have been lower than present by as much as 130 m. The current sea level was only established about 6,000 years ago. As humans mainly lived close to the water, a large majority of humanity's development took place on areas that are now submerged. It is only within the past decade that there has been recognition of how important the missing data on the submerged shelf is. With the speeding up of research of submerged landscapes underwater cultural heritage comes more and more in the focus of the States of the Gulf region. As the waters of the Gulf are relatively shallow with an average at about 35 metres, it can be assumed that prior to 14,000 years ago this now submerged area was an open landscape with a supply of fresh water from Euphrates and Tigris. Realising the importance of the available data, seismic reflection surveys are now undertaken.

Of huge scientific potential is also the research of the historic maritime past of the States of the Gulf. For centuries Arab States have ruled the waves. Throughout the 7th-13th centuries they maintained a wide trade network across Asia, Africa and Europe, which made them the world's leading extensive economic power. The remains of Arab shipwrecks, as well as the wrecks of foreign ships, like for instance Portuguese ships, can be supposed to be still preserved on the seabed. In addition to these wrecks also ruins of coastal constructions and cities can be found under water, as for instance at Qa’lat Al-Bahrain.

Until now only one major shipwreck of the 9th century, the time of Arab seafaring’s glory, has been found, the Indonesian Belitung wreck. It was however destroyed in a rushed operation of cargo recovery by commercial salvagers. A major part of the available scientific information was lost. The story of this loss does serve to illustrate the need to protect underwater cultural heritage and to adopt appropriate scientific guidelines for its research and treatment, through the ratification and implementation of the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

This Convention is the leading legal instrument guiding underwater archaeology worldwide.

The Convention was adopted by UNESCO in 2001. It is the international community’s response to the destruction of submerged archaeological sites by commercial treasure-hunters and certain industrial activities. It also reflects the growing recognition of the need to ensure the same attention to underwater cultural heritage as that already accorded to land-based heritage. It is designed to strengthen legal protection, research, cooperation, awareness-raising and capacity-building.

The Convention aims at achieving heritage protection in the respect of high ethical and scientific standards as well as effective State cooperation. Ratifying the 2001 Convention provides several advantages to a State:

  • It helps to protect underwater cultural heritage from pillaging and commercial exploitation and achieves legal safeguarding wherever a site is located.
  • The Convention brings protection to the same level as the protection of land based sites and enables States Parties to adopt a common approach to preservation and ethical scientific management.
  • States Parties benefit from cooperation with other States Parties in practical and legal terms.
  • The Convention provides effective professional guidelines on how to intervene with and research underwater cultural heritage sites.

The Convention is accompanied by a Scientific and Technical Advisory Body, which is available to advise the States Parties. States reunite every two years in the Meeting of States Parties.

<- Back to: Underwater Cultural Heritage
Back to top