09.06.2020 - Culture Sector

Underwater Cultural Heritage: Professionals grapple with the COVID-19 crisis

In just a few short months, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic within societies coupled with the measures taken by governments around the world have already leveled particularly severe consequences on the cultural sector, including underwater cultural heritage.

Watch our video: https://youtu.be/T0JP034I11o

 

 

Underwater cultural heritage, such as shipwrecks and the vestiges of ancient coastal cities and civilizations, require regular protective actions and studies which governments and underwater cultural heritage experts and professionals undertake. However amidst the COVID-19 crisis, such activities, including underwater archaeology, a domain where seasonal fieldwork is the norm, were immediately affected.

 

"The pandemic decreases chances for underwater cultural heritage professionals to meet. Therefore the exchange of information or ideas may be reduced,” reports Rahothan Wongsakorn, a specialist working for Thailand's Underwater Archaeology Division.  Not only reducing fieldwork and exchanges, the pandemic has caused the postponement of important events as well. These include the seventh International Congress on Underwater Archeology, organized by the University of Helsinki (IKUWA Conference), postponed to 2021. The Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) to UNESCO’s 2001 Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage also had to postpone its advisory missions to States Parties, including the one planned in Guatemala to assess the state of conservation of the sunken structures of Atitlan Lake.

 

The constant threats to underwater cultural heritage, such as treasure hunting, looting and trafficking, are currently heightened. Also of concern is the suspension of funding in some cases. Marijo Gauthier Bérubé, an underwater archaeologist from the Institute of Research in Maritime History and Underwater Archaeology in Quebec (Canada), notes that “Some projects risk ignoring the need to assess and document the submerged heritage, which will inevitably lead to its potential destruction and a huge loss of knowledge for a heritage already fragile and non-renewable.” 

 

Culture, including underwater cultural heritage, is an important source of economic and social development. Unfortunately, many small privately-funded entities such as consulting or commercial archaeology firms, associations, NGOs, and museums face serious financial repercussions as a result of the closures caused by the pandemic. Perhaps most concerning is the situation of many independent archaeologists, often young professionals, who, like other cultural actors, find themselves without immediate financial resources and facing an uncertain future.

The current situation has required professionals to rethink their approaches to, and transversal unity around, our common cultural heritage. Michel L’hour, Director of the French Department of Underwater Archaeological Research, stresses his conviction that “there will be no future without solidarity and cooperation.” Christophe Delaere, a Belgian underwater archaeologist working with both Oxford University and Free University of Brussels emphasizes that “beyond certain stresses, the COVID-19 crisis allows us to take a step back from our own management of the cultural and natural heritage that we must imperatively pass on to future generations.”     

Today, the ethical and responsible management of underwater cultural heritage must be pursued in light of new circumstances. The crisis  underlines the importance of building new paths to support the "Blue Economy", called for by the United Nations Decade for Ocean Science with respect to our planet, communities, history, and heritage, and to contemplate our long-term relationship with the oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes. 




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