Site assessment (Rule 14)

Preliminary work essentially takes place in anticipation of an intervention. No operation must be undertaken without it, regardless of whether it aims at consolidation, at facilitating access or at full excavation.

As regulated by Rule 14, the preliminary work needs to include assessments of site significance, vulnerability and the potential to reach project objectives. It should address basic issues, such as the extent of the site, depth, stratigraphic position, the general condition of preserved remains, and site integrity. It should also include a description of other general characteristics and above all else, draw an analytical comparison with other sites.

The emphasis on evaluation of preliminary studies in a project design in Rule 10 is intended to ensure that decisions concerning heritage are rational and transparent.  


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Site evaluation as part of the preliminary studies

The emphasis on evaluation of preliminary studies in a project design in Rule 10 is intended to ensure that decisions concerning heritage are rational and transparent.

Preliminary studies define what is known at that point of time and serve the following purposes:

  • inform the competent authorities on the site, its context, environment and condition;
  • provide a basis for a region’s inventory;
  • provide the basis for development of a management plan; and
  • provide the basis for the design of (any) project directed at this particular site.

Rule 14 specifically refers to the evaluation of:

  • the significance of the site and the underwater cultural heritage concerned;
  • the vulnerability of the heritage to damage by the proposed project;
  • the vulnerability of its surrounding natural environment to damage by the proposed project;
  • the potential to obtain data that would meet the project objectives.

A preliminary assessment of a site should include descriptive information and an evaluative section on:

  • location
  • depth
  • stratigraphic position
  • extent
  • nature of remains
  • condition of remains
  • environmental conditions

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The Advantage of standard approaches


In view of a proposed project, preliminary work may concentrate on specific points, but ideally it should adopt a form that is very comparable to the assessment of other sites in the region. When assessments and evaluations always follow the same logic, they are easier to understand and to use as the basis for decisions. This is important for comparison and for the purposes of inventory and management. Therefore, the adoption of a common assessment format is desirable, especially within one and the same project area. Arguably, the advantage of standard approaches also applies to a whole region or even worldwide.

While the Rules concern activities directed at underwater cultural heritage, such activities are only a part of the wider heritage field and of wider heritage policies. A standardized approach to preliminary assessment – across the range of different sites and purposes– adds to the possibilities for comparing sites and for prioritizing protection, research and monitoring, both within a region and across national borders. Maritime cultural heritage research is by definition an international discipline: submerged landmasses may have joined presently separate nations. Ships were built to cross maritime borders. Sea routes connected people, markets and cultures. Common standards for assessment are therefore an asset.

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Assessment of significance


One of the aims of a preliminary assessment is to establish the significance of a site. This is required in Rule 14, but it does not define what significance is; nor could it. Like beauty, significance cannot be defined in legal terms. Nevertheless, although it is difficult to strictly define, significance is quite easy to understand. In relation to a site, an object or a story, significance is the quality that makes it meaningful or of consequence, for a person, for a group, or for humanity as a whole. It is precisely because of its significance that something is regarded as heritage, as a legacy to be preserved and passed on to future generations. That is why significance drives heritage management, interventions and protection. It was in fact in recognition of the universal ‘significance’ of underwater cultural heritage that a convention for its protection was called for in the first place.

The assessment of significance has an effect on all subsequent choices and management decisions. It:

  • determines whether a site is
    • considered heritage;
    • inscribed in the inventory;
    • listed in a specific protection scheme;
  • determines what opportunities are recognised;
  • prefigures
    • the sentiments of potential ‘stakeholders’;
    • the research questions that are conceived of as relevant for the site;
    • the research questions for which the site is conceived of as relevant;
  • influences future planning and mitigation schemes; and
  • informs discussion on what
    • measures are taken for sites, especially for those under threat;
    • can and is to be preserved ; and
    • can or is to be destroyed for research and development.

    Although preliminary assessment of significance is just one step in the cycle of understanding and managing underwater cultural heritage, it is a very important one. It is even on the basis of that assessment that the choice to revisit the site is based. It should therefore be carried out in a responsible, competent and transparent way.

    Even when significance is hard to define in objective terms, it can be assessed objectively. Besides being subject to change and to the subjectivity of each observer, the significance of a site or artefact is the result of a range of intrinsic characteristics, which can be objectified and make it meaningful. One way to measure the degree of the resulting significance is through comparison with other sites or artefacts.

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Assessment of significance - Criteria


The criteria used to determine the intrinsic value of a site are:

  1. Archaeological significance: the potential to yield important information about the past through archaeological investigation.
  2. Historical significance: the association of a site or an object with people, events, activities, places and themes in local, regional, national or international history.
  3. Research significance: the measure in which a site, an object or collection may be relevant to settle topical  research question in archaeology, history or any of the other sciences.
  4. Aesthetic significance
  5. Social or spiritual significance and remembrance value
  6. Visibility and experience value.
  7. Economical significance

Additional comparative criteria are used to evaluate the degree of significance of a site or object in comparison to other sites in an area:

  1. Provenance
  2. Period
  3. Representativeness and group value
  4. Rarity/uniqueness
  5. Condition/completeness/fragility
  6. Documentation
  7. Interpretive potential
  8. accessibility
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Assessment of significance - Intrinsic characteristics

The purpose of significance assessment is to establish, as objectively as possible, the intrinsic qualities the site displays and the different scales or dimensions according to which it may be or become significant. This can be done by the use of a simple scale, on which the intrinsic qualities are scored. Possible associations, opportunities and the significance for different stakeholder groups can then be discussed in a simple but systematic way. By applying such an approach, it is quite possible to argue clearly and transparently why the site is considered significant and why its significance may be enhanced by the intended project. If a site is important for answering questions on a research agenda is for instance a legitimate dimension of significance. Aspects such as symbolic memory, the opportunity to integrate conservation with development, or to use heritage as inspiration are equally important. So are the associations of a site with a historical narrative or episode, with a religion or a belief.

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Assessment of significance - Comparison of sites

Thought needs to be given to the assessment of significance in a wider context, i.e. in comparison with other sites. Given the necessarily limited means for archaeological research and excavation, not all existing sites can be preserved, researched and managed. A pragmatic choice of interventions therefore needs to be made, ideally based upon the assessment of all heritage sites and their archaeological, historical, artistic and aesthetic significance, in order to ensure the best use of the existing financial means and personnel.

The approach of scoring on a scale can also be applied to assess significance of a specific site or artefact in the context of active inventory or impact assessment. It can then be used for comparative reasons in order to judge if one site is more significant than another. However, by definition, this significance assessment is not absolute. It applies to the context and to the level of available information. Likewise, a ranking exercise may be highly relevant in preparation for a development project whose effects on underwater cultural heritage are to be mitigated, but it has no absolute value. Significance assessment always needs to be reconsidered, whenever new developments take place.

In comparing sites to assess the significance of one of them, it could be argued that a site has no significance if it has not been discovered. However, the role of archaeological discoveries in our present-day understanding of humanity and its history is proof to the contrary, and has led to the step to protect yet undiscovered heritage. This is the reason for reporting systems, for prohibition of unlicensed excavation and for obligations to survey prior to project development. Through these policies, society recognizes the potential significance of undiscovered sites, at least until they are proven to be of no consequence for research. For these reasons, undertaking regional surveys and inventories are important.

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Assessment of significance - Changes in significance


The perception of significance can be different at the local, national or international level. It depends, for instance, on the strength of historic relations or religious associations. Significance is also subject to change. It can be created and enhanced through research and through raising public awareness. The more a site is publicized and discussed in the media, the more significant it becomes. What is considered significant under present circumstances may also lose significance in the future. A site may, for instance, no longer be the only or best-known example of a certain phenomenon. Conversely, sites or remains that are not considered significant now, may prove of enormous consequence in the future.

The realization that these changes happen, has considerably influenced the world-wide development of heritage policies. Precautionary and blanket approaches to protection, as well as a commitment to evaluate significance anew, whenever planning, development, specific circumstances or events give occasion, are therefore part of many heritage policies. Such renewed assessment can yet again be considered to be ‘preliminary work’. It is then often carried out within the context of impact assessments for planned developments that might ‘incidentally affect’ underwater cultural heritage, as addressed in article 5 of the convention.


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Assessment of significance - Involving stakeholders


Besides being transparent in the assessment of significance, it is useful, if not indispensable, to involve crucial stakeholders. This may specifically mean consulting specialist researchers and engaging stakeholders in a consultation process. With underwater cultural heritage, this will also quite often mean engaging stakeholders from other States. Shipwreck sites are often related to tragedies. If these tragedies live on in popular memory, they may have a very specific significance both where they occurred and in the area where the relatives of crew and passengers lived or continue to live. It is clear, however, that the collective memory fades away over time, whether locally or in other affected regions. If, on the other hand, a site is forgotten because it reflects a time beyond memory, its scientific significance as evidence of early contact and exchange may be all the greater, whereas a memory regained, may also be a powerful force.

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Assessment of vulnerability


Rule 14 requires the assessment of vulnerability to damage of the underwater cultural heritage in question before the start of any project, as well as the vulnerability of the surrounding natural environment. This concerns the potential impact of a proposed intervention. In a dynamic environment, which the underwater world often is, even a small test pit may have huge consequences on long-term stability, if no measures for consolidation are taken simultaneously.

The vulnerability of a site is a two-sided coin. Stability may be jeopardized even by a small intervention. If, on the other hand, sites are discovered as a result of ongoing erosion, non-intervention may be regarded as a bad management choice, as the environment could be too hostile for long-term preservation. In other words: an assessment of the site’s vulnerability may result in arguments for, as well as against, intervention.

In assessing vulnerability it is important not to take any rash action. It might be necessary to decide on full-scale excavation, but temporary measures for stabilization are often faster to be taken and much less expensive. They may gain time for a well-considered decision on the basis of an encompassing research plan and project design. There is also a duty to care for the natural environment in which the site is located. A coral reef or a sensitive ecosystem should not be disturbed without good reason, or without taking care to mitigate negative impacts.

In the assessment, the nature of the deposit and the prevailing environmental conditions will be important. It also needs to be backed up by background studies according to Rule 15. There is usually information available on the prevailing environmental factors and forces on the site and its surroundings. Time series relating to depth enable the modelling of erosion and accretion. In addition to tracking formal data, it is very useful to involve the expertise and local knowledge of fishermen, pilots and divers. Factual establishment of the site’s current condition and environment, including exact depth and exposed length and width is the basis of the assessment. It is also the base line, which will provide a starting point for future research and monitoring.

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