Underwater Cultural Heritage inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List

Underwater cultural heritage has become a matter of public concern quite recently. The international community has reached a consensus on this issue in 2001 only. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage has greatly helped in raising awareness about the importance of preserving this submerged heritage, which was still hardly accessible a few decades ago. 

The 2001 Convention offers a blanket protection to all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously for at least 100 years. This definition refers to both objects and sites, but makes no reference to a degree of significance. It is therefore possible to envisage an underwater archaeological site identified as “Outstanding Universal Value”, a criteria indispensible to be inscribed on the World Heritage List in accordance to the 1972 Convention.

The Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage is another UNESCO Convention. Adopted in 1972, this treaty links together in an original way the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties. The Convention recognizes the way in which people interact with nature, and the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two. The program catalogues and conserves sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Under certain conditions, listed sites can obtain funds from the World Heritage Fund. After the 35th meeting of the World Heritage Committee, held in Paris from June 19th to 29th 2011, 936 sites were listed in 153 States Party, on the basis of ten criterion (six cultural, four natural).

Since the early 1980s, forty-three marine sites have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. In recognition of mounting conservation challenges in marine areas, a specific programme has been designed to protect those sites. The scope of UNESCO's World Heritage Marine Programme is however limited to natural sites only.

The two conventions are compatible in that:

-          Underwater cultural heritage sites can be proposed for inscription or be inscribed on the World Heritage List for their cultural significance (cultural criteria);

-          Parts of World Heritage sites and Marine World Heritage sites can be submerged archaeological sites (such as the group of monuments in Mahabalipuram, India).

Among the sites that have been recently inscribed on the World Heritage List, two sites can be considered as underwater archaeological sites.

-           Papahanaumokuakea (United States) –inscribed in 2010

Papahānaumokuākea is the name of a vast and isolated linear cluster of small, low lying islands and atolls located at the northwest of the main Hawaiian Archipelago. The area has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture, as an ancestral environment. Archaeological remains relating to pre-European settlement and use of land can also be found in the area. The site is host to numerous endangered or threatened species, both terrestrial and marine, some of which depend solely on Papahānaumokuākea for their survival.


-          Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland) – inscribed in 2011



© P. Pétrequin, Centre Recherche Archeologique - Vallée de l’Ain
Original piles in Lac de Chalain, rive occidentale (FR-39-02)with the reconstruction of a Neolithic dwelling in the background

This serial property of 111 small individual sites encompasses the remains of prehistoric pile-dwelling (or stilt house) settlements in and around the Alps. Dating back from around 5000 to 500 B.C., these remains can be found on the edges of lakes, rivers or wetlands stretching over six countries: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland.  This group of exceptionally well-preserved and culturally rich archaeological sites provides insight into life in prehistoric times during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Alpine Europe.


Two other sites, inscribed before the adoption of the 2001 Convention, include submerged areas which can be considered as part of the underwater cultural heritage.

-          Groups of monuments in Mahabalipuram (India) –inscribed in 1984

© WikiCommons / UNESCO
Relief of the "Descend of the Ganga in Mahabalipuram (also Mamallapuram), India.

This group of sanctuaries, founded by the Pallava kings, encompasses numerous temples and bas-reliefs located along the Indian Ocean. The tsunami that hit the coast in 2005 revealed the presence of underwater archaeological remains. The ruins from the ancient harbour and a temple were uncovered.



-          Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza (Mexico) – inscribed in 1988

This sacred site was one of the greatest Mayan-Toltec centres of the Yucatán peninsula. Several buildings have survived, such as the Warriors’ Temple, El Castillo and the circular observatory known as El Caracol as well as two cenotes (or chenes), those natural cavities used as water reserve. The water basins were sacred and served as sacrificial sites: many gold and jade objects were discovered underwater as well as human skeletons.


Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza

This sacred site was one of the greatest Mayan centres of the Yucatán