Best Practices of Underwater Cultural Heritage

Fostering Access to Underwater Cultural Heritage through Best Practices

Best Practice Label ©UNESCO/U.Guerin

 The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage encourages the responsible access of the public to underwater heritage. Only who knows the heritage, cares about it.

To foster such access, the Meeting of Parties invited States Parties to the Convention to provide examples of Best Practices. The first examples have been approved and been designated by a special Label. 

The designation has several advantages:

1.    It increases the visibility of the accessible site or institution (for instance a museum);

2.    It is a recognition for work well done and guides others to follow the example;

3.    It sets a true sign in favor of responsible access; and

4.    Designated access-providers can form a network and can cooperate better, for instance through exchanging temporary exhibitions.

Fuerte San José el Alto (Mexico) - The Campeche Underwater Cultural Heritage Museum, designated as Best Practice in 2017

How to be designated as Best Practice?

The Meeting of Parties invited States Parties to the Convention to provide examples of Best Practices. The examples have hence to be submitted through the Permanent Delegation of a State that has ratified the 2001 Convention. Upon proposal of a Best Practice example it will be reviewed and evaluated by the Convention’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) with a view to designate the example as Best Practice, or not.

The following criteria apply:

a. the heritage falls under the definition of Article 1 of the 2001 Convention or is less than 100 years of age, but is classified as underwater cultural heritage according to national law,

b. the heritage is appropriately protected both legally and in practice; in particular, through the implementation of the Rules,

c. responsible non-intrusive access is respected,

d. the heritage has a framework to ensure sustainable management; and

e. a special and outstanding effort has been made to make the site accessible to the public.

Best Practices should aim at:

a. encouraging responsible and non-intrusive public access to underwater cultural heritage in conformity with articles 2.5 and 2.10,

b. increasing public awareness, appreciation and protection of heritage,

c. promoting the Convention and the implementation of national juridical frameworks for protection,

d. supporting scientific research in accordance with the Convention and the Rules and capacity-building in that regard, and

e. the appropriate conservation of the heritage,

Please do include appropriate stakeholders, at local, national and international levels in the process of identifying Best Practices, and cooperate in their promotion and application. 

Andalusia's centre of Underwater Archeology. ©Pedro Saura

Andalusia's Underwater Archaeological Heritage, Spain

Created  in  2004,  the  Management  and  Information System of  Cultural  Assets  of  Andalusia (MOSAICO) is an information system which contains extensive information about heritage sites, including 900  historical  shipwrecks.  While the sites now benefit from legal protection, visits are encouraged for both divers and tourists. Training courses and seminars are also organized.

Excavation campaign ©Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya

Cap del Vol and Cala Cativa shipwrecks, Spain

This project studied shipwrecks at Cap del Vol and Cala Cativa that sank while transporting wine between the first century BC and the second century AD. Efforts to enable heritage access include publications, an exhibition at the Archaeological Museum of Barcelona, conferences, scuba-guided visits to the shipwrecks during archaeological excavation works, on-site protection, and a documentary.

Excavation campaign ©Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya

Deltebre I shipwreck, Spain

The shipwreck of Deltebre I was discovered in 2008. It sank in 1813, during the Peninsular War. The Underwater Archaeology Centre of Catalonia (CASC) began excavations in 2009 that were completed in 2016. Heritage access has been provided through public visits during the excavations. Additionally, a special traveling exhibition displays the results of the excavations in diverse locations.


Ortofoto of the dig trench, 2016.©University of Alicante

The Bou Ferrer Shipwreck, Spain

The Bou Ferrer Wreck is a Roman shipwreck of the first century CE, located off the coast of Villajoyosa, Spain. Heritage access is guaranteed through public visits to the site, access to the archaeological materials in museums, videos, educational messages and informal reports, as well as presentations and conferences.

Campeche Museum

Underwater Archaeology Museum in Fuerte de San José El Alto, Mexico

The Museum of Campeche has a collection of more than 900 elements of underwater archeology recovered in the marine and continental waters of the Yucatan Peninsula. It has two locations: one in San Jose el Alto, holding the authentic collections, and one in the area of Playa Bonita. The location in Playa Bonita strengthens the visibility of underwater cultural heritage through hands-on activities. For example, visitors may experience a replica of one of the excavated vessels through diving, snorkeling, and glass bottom boats, among other activities 

Sun Lake in Nevado de Toluca

Underwater Cultural Heritage at the Nevado de Toluca, Mexico .

The National Nature Reserve of Nevado de Toluca is a stratovolcano located at 4680 meters above sea level. Inside the crater, there are two perennial bodies of water known as the Sun Lake and the Moon Lake. Archaeological materials deposited inside the lakes are well preserved. The aim of the project is to involve local communities with their own cultural heritage through dialogue. Exhibitions, publications, and documentary screenings encourage this dialogue through awareness and discussion.


Cascais, Portugal

Underwater Heritage in Sea of Cascais, Portugal

One hundred and thirty underwater cultural heritage sites, dating from the Roman era to the modern and contemporary periods, have been documented in the Underwater Archaeological Chart by the Municipality of Cascais, Portugal (PROCASC). Restricted heritage access to the main sites are now offered to the public. Some sites that remain under study but generate extra interest have been made accessible to amateur divers, provided that the visits can be integrated into the monitoring work of archaeologists and biologists.

The Barge Arles-Rhônes 3 © Rémi Bénali, Mdaa/CD13

-        Excavation, Reconstruction, Restoration and Presentation to the Public of the Barge Arles-Rhônes 3, France

The Arles-Rhône 3 is a wreck of a 31m long Gallo-Roman barge. Probably built in the shipyards of Arles in the middle of the 1st century AD, it sank in the harbor of the same Roman city less than ten years after its construction while still in the state to navigate. Discovered in 2004, surveyed in 2005 and 2006, excavated from 2007 to 2011 and recovered that same year, the hull of this barge is 93% complete. The barge is installed in the Departmental of Ancient Arles with some 480 objects surrounding it. The arrangement evokes three themes for the visitors: navigation, sea-river trade and harbour activities.

Chinchorro Banks

-         Underwater Cultural Heritage in the Chinchorro Bank, Mexico

Since 2006, the Sub-Directorate of Underwater Archaeology of the Mexican National of Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) integrates the underwater cultural resources chart of the Chinchorro Bank. It develops interdisciplinary studies to understand the formation and the transformation processes of submerged archaeological contexts. The inventory comprises the documentation and evaluation of 69 archaeological sites including shipwrecks, cargo and lost or abandoned natural objects. The project promotes responsible access through the training of tour operators and through shipwreck diving courses for varied public.

Island of Ponta Delgada

-       Subaquatic Archaeological Charter of the Azores, Portugal

The Azores archipelago counts over one thousand registered shipwrecks, submerged in over five centuries since people first arrived to live on the islands. The Regional Government selected 30 UCH sites for a subaquatic itinerary to allow reasonable access for visitors.  In terms of efforts for a responsible access to the public, the Regional Government implements a series of touring exhibits on underwater archaeology and develops educational and interactive material for the general public.

The Ljubljanica River Phenomenon

-         The Ljubljanica River Phenomenon, Slovenia

The 23 km stretch of the Ljubljana River between Vrhnika and Ljubljana and the surrounding floodplains, the Ljubljana Marshes hold many objects or groups of objects submerged and exposed at the bottom of the river. The numerous objects discovered are diverse and all testify of the particular role of the river for local communities. The Ljubljana Exhibition and Discovery Site project is the first phrase of a larger integrated programme to revitalize the cultural and natural heritage of the Ljubljana basin. Its objective is to protect, preserve and present heritage elements but also to ensure accessibility for as many people as possible to promote the long-term of sustainable social development at the local, national and international levels.

Coins from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes

-         The Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes Project, Spain

The frigate Nuestra Señora sank in 4 October 1804. The shipwreck site is located 34 nautical miles from the southern coast of Portugal, off the Cabo de Santa Maria. The Mercedes Project has become one of the clearest international examples of the Convention’s meaning and raison d’être. The artefacts removed by Odyssey were deposited at the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology, who was in charge of managing approximately 14 tons of archaeological material.

If you would like to know how to apply for designation as Best Practice click HERE

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