02.06.2017 - Culture Sector

States take Action for Safeguarding Underwater Cultural Heritage: New UNESCO Technical Mission to Guatemala and a Register of Best Practices

UNESCO will send experts to study Mayan heritage sites on the floor of Lake Atitlán at the request of Guatemala. This was agreed by the States Parties to UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001) during their meeting of 30 and 31 May, 2017, which was chaired by France’s Ambassador to UNESCO, Laurent Stefanini, at the Organization’s Headquarters. Also at that meeting, the States Parties decided to establish a Register of Best Practices for the Safeguarding of Underwater Cultural Heritage*.

UNESCO’s technical mission to Lake Atitlán (southwest Guatemala) will take place in the autumn and will be carried out by the experts of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. María Helena Barba Meinecke, head of the Yucatan Peninsula underwater heritage programme of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History will lead the mission, which will examine the archaeological sites in the lake, strengthen the technical capacities of national specialist, and propose a management plan in consultation with the local communities, for whom these vestiges are of great importance.

Several submerged archaeological sites were discovered in 1996 in Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America. Among them is a Mayan villages known as Samabaj, which retains the remains of domestic structures and religious monuments. The village appears to have been built on an island that was submerged, possibly because of a volcanic eruption, a landslide or another natural disaster. “This technical mission is especially important for local people. The sites in Lake Atitlan, when they are brought to light, will generate major interest among the indigenous peoples, as well as among historians and scientists world wide” declared Azzedine Karra, President of the STAB.

The Conference of States Parties also recognized seven examples of best practices for the preservation of underwater cultural heritage:

1.      Underwater Archaeology Museum Fuerte de San José El Alto, Campeche, Mexico

2.      Involving local communities with their own cultural heritage at the Nevado de Toluca, Mexico

3.       PROCASC programme for 130 sites of underwater heritage in Mar de Cascais (Sea of Cascais), Portugal

4.      4 Cap del Vol and Cala Cativa shipwrecks. Study of trade, Port de la Selva, Alt Empordà, Catalonia, Spain

5.      Deltebre I, The History of a Wreck, Deltebre, Baix Ebre, Catalonia, Spain

6.      Legal protection of Andalusia's underwater archaeological heritage, Andalusia, Spain

7.      The Bou Ferrer Wreck, Villajoyosa, Alicante, Spain

This follows an invitation by the Meeting of States Parties for countries to provide best practice examples for projects that ensure the lasting protection of underwater archaeological sites or remains, the sustainable management of sites, notable efforts to give the public access to such vestiges, or the inclusion of local communities in underwater heritage management.  “To strengthen the 2001 Convention we need to raise awareness among the public and government stakeholders of the incredible value of our underwater cultural heritage and how it is being damaged and destroyed. More countries need to ratify and implement the Convention.  Capacity building is essential, as many countries are just starting to develop policies, mechanisms and expertize for underwater archaeology and for the protection of this unique heritage.  This is why the work of the STAB is also very important” stressed Ambassador Stefanini.  The meeting elected six members to the STAB.*

The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2001. It aims to help save ancient shipwrecks, sunken cities, decorated grottos and any other underwater cultural vestiges from increasing pillaging and destruction by treasure hunters and other threats such as climate change, conflicts and aggressive fishing techniques.  “Wider protection of these sites requires broad cooperation between the Ministry of Culture, navies, coast guards, tourism departments, police, museums, scientists and local communities; all must join together in this effort” declared Mechtild Rössler, Director of the UNESCO Heritage Division.

Designed to preserve underwater heritage, the Convention also seeks to promote public access to this heritage and to stimulate archaeological research. Fifty-six countries have ratified the Convention to date.

*The Resolutions adopted by the Meeting of States Parties will be made available here:

**Members elected to the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body: Toufik Hamoum (Algeria), Dolores Elkin (Argentina), Michel L’Hour (France), Helena Barba Meinecke (Mexico), Azzedine Karra (Morocco), Adoté Blim Blivi (Togo).

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