International Scientific Colloquium on the factors impacting underwater cultural heritage in Brussels

For centuries, land-based heritage sites have been victim to pillaging and commercial exploitation. UNESCO has fought to protect them. Today, the protection of the world’s terrestrial heritage has much improved. However, its underwater legacy is still being devastated, and the situation is becoming more and more alarming. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage UNESCO will organize a Scientific Colloquium on the factors impacting underwater heritage (Brussels, 13 to 14 December 2011) followed by a Regional Meeting on the Convention.


© UNESCO/E. Trainito
Pollockshields Wreck, Bermudas

Ten years ago, UNESCO adopted a Convention to join States in the effort to safeguard submerged archaeological sites. On the occasion of its anniversary, UNESCO will reunite 200 scientific experts to take inventory of the situation. They will measure the dangers that threaten underwater cultural heritage in addition to discussing topics like the extent of commercial exploitation of ancient shipwrecks, the quantification of trawl damage on prehistoric sites, the tourism impact on sunken cities or the challenges of the current outsourcing of archaeological services.

The Brussels colloquium is organized on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Convention. The Convention is the foremost legal instrument protecting submerged archaeological sites of the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. It is of utmost importance that all States adhere to this treaty and apply its ethic and scientific guidelines.

© A. Vanzo/UNESCO
Wreck of the cargo ship "Togo" which sunk during the First World War in 1918 and lies at a depth of about 55 m in the bay of Cavalaire, France

The fact that these sites are under water should not change the way we care for our ancestors’ traces. However, the public imagination lingers with the fascinating picture of the treasure hunter, who finds the bucket full of gold in the pirate ship wreck. Films and books promote this idea, as do video games and flashy magazines. More than 300 major wrecks, with each enough artefacts to fill a museum, have been commercially exploited over recent years. Sadly, the artefacts were not displayed in museums, but were sold for profit, in full legality.

© E. Trainito/UNESCO
Archaeologist at work on ancient shipwreck, Italy

In addition to treasure-hunting, another threat to submerged archaeological sites has recently emerged – that of industrial development. For example, fishing and trawling on the sea floor of the Italian coasts of the North Adriatic has proved devastating. Since the introduction of engine-propelled fishing ships, every square meter of the seabed has been trawled at least three times. The impact of fishing activity on shipwrecks is similar to the impact of agriculture on land sites – with the difference that there is no regulation or safeguarding measures for the former.


Industrial activities close to the shore have a similar impact. Port construction, metro tunnel excavations, pipeline laying and the creation of tourism facilities in the style of palm islands destroy fragile submerged sites. More than 36 wrecks have been found in a recent metro project in Istanbul, and an 18th century wreck had to be displaced for a pipeline in the Baltic. While in these two cases the industrial enterprises understood the importance of the sites and cooperated, it is not so in many other cases. Enterprises are not aware of the sites they destroy or do not care about them. An Australian wreck was excavated by a crane from the water of the bay in which it had lain for years. The timber hanging from the crane grip was the first sign of the existence of the wreck, but by then, it was too late.

The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage calls for a mitigation of such activities and the taking into account of heritage in industrial projects. But more information on the nature and extent of the challenges at hand is still needed. The Brussels colloquium is a major step towards doing so.

See more

Back to top