Human remains / venerated sites (Rule 5)


Rule 5 calls for carefully considering unnecessary impact, in calling for due respect of human remains and venerated sites. In claiming respect for other people’s feelings, it touches upon one of the fundamental dilemmas and areas of contention in archaeology and heritage management.

Significance of heritage, including underwater cultural heritage, can be assessed by objectifying approaches. However, it is also quite evident that significance is perceived differently by different people, by different interested parties, and by different ‘stakeholder’ groups. This is particularly true for heritage that includes human remains and venerated sites and relates to varying ways that cultures associate with this heritage, depending on their relationship with the deceased, religious convictions or historical associations. Moreover, there is great cultural diversity in what the dead or their remains mean for the living.


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Scientific interest for human remains


Human remains solicit great scientific interest as exemplified by the fierce scientific debates on early human evolution. The present opportunities to isolate human DNA or to reconstruct food patterns on the basis of dental degradation or the relative presence of various stable isotopes, are examples that indicate how new research can build onto what has been done before, both in relation to the distant past and to more recent periods. This applies in particular to human remains that have been preserved in the submerged environment, where preservation has generally been much better than on land. Feedback from the medical sciences in palaeo-pathology has been considerable.

Customs and cultures of prehistory and later periods have been deduced from funerary practices. In the process of studying funerary practices and burial sites, cremation remains and bones are often collected. Although these remains are handled with the care appropriate for scientific specimens, this care is not necessarily identical with the care that according to a variety of cultures is due to the remains of deceased humans or human ancestors. As a result, such bones have in a number of cases become bones of contention, connected with fierce disputes. The number of disputes that have sparked from the archaeological study of human remains stresses the sensitivity of the issue.

Rule 5 demands due respect for human remains and equally requests due respect for venerated sites. These two issues are clearly interlinked as grave sites and monuments are often places of veneration. In addition to submerged tombs, inundated caves, sacrificial resting places or sunken burial ships, there are, however, also other submerged venerated sites, as for instance sacred cenotes (carst caves or sinkholes), prehistoric or historic offering places, sunken temples and the abodes of sacred animals. In many instances, veneration changed or disappeared over time. In others, it persisted or has been given new substance under new circumstances, serving new purposes. Both human remains and venerated sites call for attention and care in respect of other people’s feelings. More than other cultural heritage, these categories embody interpersonal human relations, in the present as much as in the past. The intrinsic quality of such respect also has a fundamentally political dimension.

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Deliberate burial under water


Besides the submergence of landscapes in which people have been buried, there are other customs to be taken into account where the underwater cultural heritage is concerned. Some cultures have deliberately chosen the sea or rivers as repositories for their dead, while others have done so out of necessity. 

Burial or sacrifice in moors has led to the discovery of ranges of bog bodies, preserved in the turf, whereas other ancient graves remain the subject of legend, like the grave of the Gothic king Alaric in the Busento river. The inclusion of entire ships in prestigious graves on land reflects other rites where the dead were sent out to sea in an otherwise unmanned ship.

On long voyages, before the invention of cold storage, there was little alternative but to surrender the deceased to the surrounding waves. Specific funerary rituals developed relating to these watery graves, as is described in the seamen’s lore and literature of those cultures for which a written record exists. One may suppose that other, yet similar customs arose in the context of prehistoric and illiterate navigation. It is likely that evidence thereof might one day turn up as underwater cultural heritage.

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No less dramatic than intentional burial are sinking ships that incur a great loss of lives. Yet again,it is a recurrent theme in sea-related literature. Those who stayed behind and who are thus bereaved of their kith and kin are likely to have an awkward mourning process marked by uncertainty. Stay-behind partners are not only hard hit by uncertainty, but face taboos in their cultures, unless death can be ascertained. Feelings about what happened may survive for several generations, inspiring coastal and maritime populations with awe. Rule 5 calls for considering these feelings in any activity directed at underwater cultural heritage resulting from shipwreck.

On archaeological shipwreck sites, corpses are found comparatively rarely, since in the event of distress there is a tendency to abandon ship. It is only when sailors get caught under heavy equipment, in tackle or netting, or in closed compartments that their remains are encapsulated in the wreck deposit. This is more likely to be the case for modern or technically advanced ships . Iron or steel ships with watertight bulkheads and watertight doors are obvious traps. Depending on the character of the calamity, they may indeed still contain the bodies of all hands. Deliberate foundering in war has frequently had this effect. 

The traumatic nature of the effects of war needs no comment. Populations have suffered, whether passively or actively involved. Cherishing victories and commemorating losses have been coped with in different ways by different cultures. Many present nation States have originated from the ravages of war, or continued their existence despite of it. In all such instances, these States had armies and servicemen to fight and die for their cause. To preserve the memory, unknown soldiers are commemorated at venerated sites. Major battle grounds have their dedicated cemeteries, and mutual respect for such memorials, cemeteries and war graves has been subject to negotiations between States in peace settlements and has thus been part of mutual and multilateral agreements between States. Besides formal graves on land, these agreements include respect for the location of military ships that foundered with great loss of life. Rightfully, the States concerned wish for others to respect these places.

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Respect for people’s feelings


During the negotiation of the 2001 Convention at UNESCO, the deliberating delegations consciously gave specific weight to the protection of those war graves that have previously figured in international law. Such war graves should be respected and command the protection of the 2001 Convention if they have been under water for more than 100 years (Article 1). In codifying this, the delegations have sought a general wording that accommodates for other sites that similarly relate to traumatic death. As a consequence, Article 2.9 of the Convention does not specifically set aside war graves, although obviously they are implied.

In conformity with this, the simple wording of Rule 5 stresses that one should respect other people’s feelings. It extends this respect to all human remains and to all venerated sites. These sites may be venerated for any kind of reason, by any kind of group. In planning or authorizing activities directed at underwater cultural heritage where such feelings may be at stake, they should be taken into consideration. Interested parties should not only be informed but involved. It is a topic that is dealt with in more general terms in Chapter XIV. Unnecessary disturbance should be avoided. If possible, these sites should not be meddled with at all. The preference for in situ preservation as the first option presents itself strongly in such cases.

Human remains  

  • Underwater cultural heritage may contain human remains as part and parcel of the deposit.
  • Human remains may be of considerable scientific interest.
  • Human remains shall be handled with respect.
  • Human remains shall not be disturbed unnecessarily.

Venerated sites

  • Some underwater cultural heritage sites are venerated sites.
  • No activities at venerated sites shall be planned or authorized without prior involvement of interested parties.
  • Venerated sites shall not be disturbed unnecessarily.
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