The general context

The significance of underwater cultural heritage

Geoff Bailey, University of York (Text | Presentation)

During the past decade, there has been an increase of interest in the underwater world, dating back to earlier examples of underwater finds as well as landscapes that have been submerged by the rise in sea level at the end of the last glacial period. In fact, for 90% of human existence on this planet, sea levels have been lower than the present by about 40 m in response to the growth and decay of the continental ice sheets. The high sea level that we presently enjoy was established about 6,000 years ago. The submergence of large areas of the continental shelf due to rise in sea-level has long been recognised as a major factor in changing the palaeogeography of the world’s coastlines. However, it is only within the past decade that there has been a clear recognition of how important it is as the missing data on the submerged shelf. An increase of prehistoric underwater archaeological sites, ranging in age from over 6,000 years to 300,000 years ago, has been recovered at a depth ranging from less than 10m to more than 40m. They often have unusual and spectacular conditions of preservation of organic materials such as wood and fibres. There is clear evidence that substantial traces of submerged prehistoric landscapes and archaeology are preserved on the continental shelf that was important for human settlement during long periods of the Pleistocene.

Underwater cultural heritage under pressure

Thijs Maarleveld, ICOMOS and University of Southern Denmark

Approaches to heritage have changed over the past 50 to 60 years, since the first operation of scientific interest in underwater heritage. In the first pioneering years, the emphasis was given to excavation, exploring and exploiting the newly available heritage resources for research or other purposes on either the coast of Libya or Turkey, in the Swiss or the Mexican inland water, in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean, the Baltic or the Adriatic. It was through these examples that the discipline of maritime archaeology emerged. Presently, there is a demand for more encompassing approaches than focusing on a single site. We realize that the underwater world is a cornucopia that should be frugally managed in order to not fall victim of the ‘tragedy of the commons that are scavenged at will’. Since the 1970s a slow process of finding common ground and guidance on how to best manage underwater cultural heritage for the benefit of humankind has been developed by the Council of Europe guidance, the 1996 ICOMOS Charter, and the UNESCO 2001 Convention. They were the foundation for the extensive management plans for underwater parks with the range of World Heritage nominations as confirmation. In 2009, the Convention entered into force but the pressure on heritage has continued to increase, partly because more heritage sites and landscapes are recognized, and partly because other interests and uses of the sea and inland water have intensified as well.

The future of underwater archaeology

Constantin Chera, Former President of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, Rumania  (Text)

As mankind becomes more aware of its role in preserving its own heritage and in caring about the natural environmental evolution our world, conventions pertaining to underwater cultural heritage should be a major item on the agenda of the international community.

Future development depends on worldwide recognition of the priceless valuables deposited under water along with decades of evidence of human existence, as well as the willingness of politicians to act enthusiastically to preserve our common cultural treasures. A good sign is indicated by the 41 states that have already ratified the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage as of 2012.

Archaeology is a sensitive subject when heritage is presented to the public. Apart from legal provisions, which still need to be improved, practical means for research in this field are not at the disposal of all nations. This is why technical knowledge achieved during the last decades has to be shared for an appropriate valorization of underwater archaeological sites. Cooperation from all possible levels is the main goal for future research of our common past history. An important task in identifying possibilities and in developing a framework for international cooperation is conferred to the working groups and the advisory bodies initiated by the Convention.

The future of underwater archeology is also dependent upon the practical implementation, resolutions and recommendations by UNESCO and all interested parties in preserving underwater cultural heritage. An important aspect in this respect is the ecological evolution of water reserves worldwide.