The Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites

The below presentations were part of the International Meeting on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites, which took place at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, on 22-23 September 2016.

The Recommendations, which were adopted during this meeting, can be found here: EN / FR

See also: Brochure on the pillaging of Underwater Cultural Heritage sites.


James Delgado, Presentation The role of archaeology in major cases of pillaging concerning Underwater Cultural Heritage

Jean-Luc Blachon, Presentation The seizure of underwater cultural heritage materials

Alexandre Monteiro, Presentation The challenges we face in regards to the protection of sites

Manuel Angel Sanchez Corbi, Presentation Modern Surveillance Techniques

Gianpietro Romano, Presentation The expertise of Italian Carabinieri in the protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

Denis Bigot, Presentation The responsibilities and potentials of the marine armed forces in the protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

Philippe Pelgas, Presentation Preventive archaeology

International experts and government representatives met at UNESCO on 22 and 23 September 2016 to discuss the protection of underwater cultural heritage. In their recommendations they urged for stronger laws, licensing and monitoring regulations, and training coast guards, port authorities and police forces to allow for better surveillance and information sharing to improve the protection of submerged archaeological sites and shipwrecks.

The experts underscored that to prevent the destruction of shipwrecks and archaeological sites by treasure hunters focused on profits a much stronger and concerted effort is needed. “Their search for coins and artefacts results in the loss of scientific and historic data that an archaeological excavation would have revealed, while the objects salvaged go to private auctions or collections leaving little or nothing for national museums” said H.E. Mr Ahmad Jalali, Permanent Delegate of the Islamic Republic of Iran at UNESCO and Vice-Chair of the Meeting of States Parties to the 2001 Convention.

The hunt for treasure causes irreparable damage to thousands of sites.  Underwater Archaeologist Michael Pateman of the Bahamas Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Corporation relayed that of 71 permits for shipwreck salvage between 1972 and 1999,  most resulted in no recoveries and valuable artefacts salvaged were not equitably shared. “The Government received only one cash payment related to the Nuestra Senora de las Maravillas salvage operation, however they simultaneously lost one of the most important archaeological sites of the region. The Christies auction of the cargo outraged the Government. They placed a moratorium on the issuance of licenses in 1999” he stated.

“States lose out when they contract with unethical salvage companies. Treasure hunting is a very large business; we are also talking about side effects like off-shore money and laundering of money” said Alexandre Monteiro, Nova University of Lisbon (Portugal). He stressed that stronger national laws and implementation of the  UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage are the only effective means to deal with this, but treasure hunters devise ever more complex schemes and shift to easier targets where legal protection and law enforcement are less stringent.

“Some of the richest vestiges of humanity’s cultural heritage lie preserved in the depths of the world’s oceans and they are threatened.  It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure they are protected, studied and valued.  The UNESCO Convention offers an international legal framework to do this” declared Michel L’Hour, Department of Underwater and Submarine Archaeological Research (France).

The pillage of the Spanish vessel Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank in 1804, was another highlighted example. US courts ruled in 2012 that the treasure hunt firm Odyssey had to return to Spain the 574,000 gold and silver coins it had taken. “Spain did not pursue this pillage case because of the financial value of the coins” said Elisa de Cabo, Deputy Director for Heritage (Spain). “It is about the heritage of humanity and these artefacts have to go to a museum. We need more awareness about the importance of underwater heritage as archaeological sites” she added.

James Delgado from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA) emphasized that “treaties, agreements, legislation, regulations and case law play a crucial role in the protection and management of underwater cultural heritage.”  Universal ratification and implementation of the UNESCO 2001 Convention is among the Recommendations as it is both a legal and practical tool. For example, it calls on Parties to seize objects within their territory that were recovered illegally or unscientifically, and it has a Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) that States can call on in emergency situations for investigations and training exercises. 

Licensing, investigation and seizure if necessary, were identified as paramount in the fight to deter pillaging and bring perpetrators to justice.  Representatives of INTERPOL, NATO and the Italian Caribinieri further emphasized that cooperation with law enforcement, especially for surveillance and databases, go hand in hand with the judicial aspects.

Manuel Angel Sanchez Corbi, Chief of the Central Operative Unit of the Spanish Civil Guard, recounted surveillance operations along Spain’s coasts that include patrols at sea, drones and helicopters by air, electronic imaging, and fixed warning systems to monitor known wrecks. Sebastiano Tusa of Sopra-Intendenza Sicily (Italy) underscored that protection requires the public’s appreciation of what is on the sea bed and the involvement of local stakeholders.  “To save our sites we open them to the public. Regulations are necessary, along with cooperation among the coast guard, diving clubs, local fishing and tourism industries, and schools to effectively protect and maintain underwater sites” he explained. 

Raising awareness can make a tremendous difference for those sites next in line to be explored or exploited.  “The immensity of the ongoing destruction, pillaging and commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage sites largely goes unnoticed by the public” declared Helena Barba Meinecke, Chairperson of the UNESCO Advisory Body to the 2001 Convention.

Back to top