Background studies (Rule 15)

Background studies should address the historical and archaeological context of the period in which a site was constituted as well as the concerned region. In this regard, the international character of wreck-sites deserves specific attention, as the verifiable link of a ship wreck deposit to the region where it situated may be of a fortuitous nature. The ship may have aimed to link two or more completely different regions, whose historical and archaeological context is equally important for a well-considered evaluation of the site.


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The extent of background studies


Field evaluation and desk-based assessment are complementary. Nevertheless, depending on the context, there might be a need to put more emphasis on one or the other.

In a project addressing a particular site, the evaluation of field data is often the first step. If the observations onsite do not warrant the formulation of an extensive project, no such project should be approved or committed to, whether there are extensive background studies or not.

Under other circumstances, desk-based assessment may be the first step. This is especially true for inventory projects or for impact assessment for projects that will ‘incidentally affect underwater cultural heritage’. According to Article 5 of the Convention, States Parties commit themselves to “use the best practicable means ... to prevent or mitigate any adverse effects that might arise from activities ... incidentally affecting underwater cultural heritage”. It is an obligation that reflects standing practice in many parts of the world and which is  also included in other international legal instruments, such as the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage of 1992, or the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context of 1991.

In developing a Project Design for an activity directed at a specific underwater cultural heritage site, the preliminary observations that were made on-site, and that are the subject of Rule 14, are important. The extent to which they can be integrated with the different kinds of background studies depends on the nature and detail of those observations. If they indicate that a site is extended, eroding and unstable but give no indication as to a date (other than that the site was previously unknown, and thus beyond memory), and if, as a consequence, a small project is proposed to establish the date of the deposit, then the Project Design should limit itself to discussing that fact. A full discussion of the region’s history would not be requisite. If, however, more is known about the site, and a larger project, including excavation, is proposed with the aim of settling a historical question, then that question and its context need wider coverage.

The production of archaeological understanding and knowledge is an iterative process. Decisions are taken one at a time. Each project or management decision should be informed by the previous work - work that is ‘preliminary’ in that respect.

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Assessment of the potential to obtain data


Each project should be executed in pursuance of project objectives. These may be purely scientific in nature, but they may also address site stabilization, consolidation or providing access. In any case, the project will imply data collection. In projects of excavation or limited intrusion, this implies some measure of destruction, although the process may be of a creative nature. After all, archaeological projects creatively produce knowledge.

The preliminary assessment should determine whether the objectives of a project can reasonably be expected to be met and are well-defined. An important aspect in this is whether or not the site allows for the collection of the data that is central to the project.

Under Rule 14, the incorporation of these questions in a preliminary assessment is specifically stressed. It is on the basis of this preliminary work that irreversible decisions on the future of the site will be taken. For the progress of research in a well-defined research agenda, it is justifiable to sacrifice individual sites for a research excavation, and to enhance their significance by in-depth scientific publication. But one should do so with the adequate methods and relying on the sites that provide the best chance of collecting the necessary data, without unnecessarily compromising sites that would otherwise remain available for future study. Hence a strong preference to target research excavation of sites threatened by development or otherwise.

The assessment of the potential to obtain data pertains to three questions:

  • is the site likely to produce the data necessary to resolve the research question(s) at stake?
  • are the proposed research methods and techniques adequate for providing that data?
  • is any resulting damage proportionate to the urgency of collecting this data?

It is also important to reflect on whether the research issues addressed are important and overarching enough to offset the loss of future research potential. Many sites have been ruined in the vain hope of finding definite proof of a possible historical identity. This was frequently ,  done without proper consideration for other, more encompassing research questions for which the assemblage and deposit would in hindsight have provided a unique opportunity.

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Historical and archaeological evidence


In instances other than the project design where more evidence is available, background studies should be far more comprehensive. According to Rule 15, the assessment should include background studies of available historical and archaeological evidence.. The desk-based studies should thus integrate all the available archaeological evidence that has previously been gathered and refer to all historical evidence that is available.

Research into historical and archaeological evidence is an essential component of an archaeological project as it can provide a wealth of historical context and moreover assist in establishing contact with other researchers working in the same field or related disciplines. There are different levels and intensities of research that can be undertaken depending on the purpose, as, for instance, the identification of a shipwreck, the contextual background of a specific site, the historic overview of an area, or comparative analysis of a site type.

The challenges faced during background studies in historical archaeology are

  • the identification of sources,
  • the acquisition of access to these sources and
  • the possession of the necessary skills to make actual use of these sources (i.e. language skills, technical understanding, deciphering difficult writing, etc.).

Types of evidence

In terms of evidence types, there is a basic distinction to make between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are original documents established at the time of the event or at the time of earlier investigation of the site. These may be ship logs, original accounts or survey-records. Secondary sources, on the other hand, analyse the event or the original document, or report analytically on the observations that were made in previous interventions. The consultation of reliable secondary sources enables an initial overview of a topic. In many instances, however, it is indispensable to verify the information obtained with the help of primary sources.

Sources of evidence

International, national, local and personal archives across the world contain an impressive breadth of historical information relevant to underwater archaeological research projects. In complement to geological, environmental and archaeological data, they encompass a wide array of documents that are relevant to different classes of underwater cultural heritage. The following types of sources are, for example, relevant to the research of ship losses, especially from the postmedieval period:

  • depictions and iconography (paintings, drawings, etchings, etc.);
  • aerial photographs;
  • recorded accounts of witnesses;
  • maps and charts;
  • ship plans, such as blueprints of the construction of a vessel, and models;
  • logbooks, repair lists, lading bills (shipping receipts), muster rolls (name lists), passenger lists and cargo manifests;
  • combat records, war diaries, regimental and vessel histories;
  • ship records;
  • lighthouse keepers’ logs and lifeboat records;
  • port and customs records;
  • insurance records;
  • private letters, diaries, journals and company correspondence;
  • memorial plaques, rolls of honours, etc.

Digital access to evidence

Not all archives possess catalogues and specific information is often difficult to track. Moreover, a vast number of websites contain information, which may be of interest, but needs to be controlled for merit, authenticity and quality. Many archives and libraries, however, have started to put amazing amounts of records on the web, creating a digital memory of the world. As with information contained in books, there are simple criteria that can help in assessing the reliability of a website: author of the page, date, URL, references to other sources, objective reasoning and fair coverage, reviews of the site, etc. Excellent sources available on the Internet can be museum and library databases, as well as official archives with online catalogues and academic journals.

Rigorous approach

Independent of the sources consulted, a thorough and scientifically rigorous approach is needed to avoid gross errors and the perpetual prolongation of myths that can be easily falsified. As any written account of an event always reflects a singular point of view, and is framed by the circumstances and the time, historic research needs to critically reflect all the information obtained. Any information discovered in the course of archival research should be supported by confirmatory evidence from additional sources.

Recording the research results

In background research for activities directed at underwater cultural heritage, the key information of any document consulted needs to be recorded in order to ensure traceability and comprehensibility of the research undertaken: title, author and place of publication, or the reference number, together with page or folio number. Records should be safely stored and copies made. Upon completion of the project, all information gathered during background research should be integrated into the project archives. 

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Archaeological and environmental characteristics


Rule 15 specifies further that preliminary assessment shall include background studies of archaeological and environmental characteristics of the site. The assessment of the archaeological characteristics has already been discussed in the context of the evaluation of significance under Rule 14. Background studies on the environmental characteristics of a site primarily refer to those environmental factors that are relevant to an interpretation of site formation processes, stability and degradation. Such study needs to take a wider area as its focus and will typically concern evaluative study of:

  • depth contours according to recent and older navigation maps;
  • the substrate and the type of seabed also with respect to shifting sands, scouring (erosion) or silting (deposition of seabed materials); 
  • the sedimentary make-up of the area;
  • data on local sea-level change in relation to submerged land-surfaces;
  • seawater composition; 
  • weather conditions and sea-state, dominant winds and fetch;
  • tides, currents and underwater visibility;
  • information on historical use of the area, including the presence of historical ports and navigation channels;
  • information on shipwrecks in the area; 
  • previous archaeological observations in the area and its wider surroundings, including both loose finds and sites.

It is wise to back-up the assessment through interviews with people with thorough local knowledge, such as fishermen or pilots. The data combined in a desk-based assessment may have to come from very different archives, institutions and informants. Project archives of previous construction or clearance projects may be highly informative.


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Consequences of potential intrusion for long-term stability

Rule 15 requires that an assessment should be made of the consequences of any potential intrusion for the long-term stability of the underwater cultural heritage affected by the activities. Such an impact assessment evaluates whether and to what extent a project is likely to cause changes for a site or its environment. Here, the modelling of site stability is crucial for an assessment of a site’s future.

The impact of intrusion on the stability of a site should be assessed with the objective to anticipate and avoid, minimize or offset adverse effects, and site stability needs to be constantly monitored throughout the project and beyond.



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Preliminary work and impact assessment

In discussing preliminary work referring to the evaluation of field data and background studies, regular reference has been made to impact studies that are carried out in advance of major development projects. In fact, whether preliminary work is carried out in the context of a project design for an activity directed at underwater cultural heritage, or in the context of an impact study for an activity that will incidentally affect it, the approach is similar.

Alterations to coastlines and to sea and river beds in conjunction with shifting erosion and sedimentation patterns may have serious implications on the conservation of underwater cultural heritage. The natural causes for such processes include climate change whereas other causes are manmade and their impact can be mitigated. Development projects such as the construction of barriers, dykes and ports that change the course of sea and river currents, the intrusive exploitation of natural resources, especially mining for aggregates, oil extraction activities, the regeneration of beaches, dredging, the construction of underwater outfalls and the laying of submarine cables, all potentially impact underwater cultural heritage.

Efforts to conserve the cultural heritage need therefore to be compatible with the development of today’s society and thus the overall development programme of the area they are located in, if they are to succeed. Conversely, the planning of major projects should also include the mitigation of impact on the underwater cultural heritage and thus contribute to that compatibility.

Interestingly, in large-scale and international maritime project development, i.e. projects that are not directed at archaeological sites, more and more initiating operators include impact assessments in the preparation of their development proposals. These well-documented project proposals will be screened formally as soon as the competent authority is notified. The national authorities should also take the underwater cultural heritage fully into consideration in their strategies. It would be wise for the competent authority to require deposition of all underlying research results and raw data in the inventory of underwater cultural heritage.

To this end, it is essential to have the most possibly accurate inventories of underwater archaeological sites so that public- and private-sector construction projects implemented in proximity to them can make provisions in their design for whatever corrective measures are required to fully protect the cultural heritage. Indeed, the assessment of impact of planned interventions for authorized industrial interventions potentially affecting a site is nowadays becoming the most typical form of preliminary study and active inventory of underwater cultural heritage. This is due the fact that impact on heritage is considered to be part of the collateral costs that are integral to the project. Benefits and collateral costs make up the balance sheet of political decision-making in the process of authorization. Consequently, this kind of survey is usually paid for by the enterprise.

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