Ten years ago yesterday UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Celebrations marking this milestone are slated to be held in Washington and Brussels in the months to come. As UNESCO sees it there is much to celebrate:
Over the 10 years of its existence, this treaty has become the foremost international legal instrument for the protection of the world’s submerged cultural heritage. Underwater archaeologists worldwide have declared their fervent support for it, and 40 States have already officially become party to it. Treasure-hunting has therefore become increasingly stigmatized in the eyes of not only professionals, but also of the public. Thanks to this Convention, submerged heritage will be protected to the same degree as land-based heritage.
No one doubts the Convention is the “foremost international legal instrument” (it is really the only one focused on the issue). The Convention clearly articulates why States should protect and preserve submerged cultural heritage. It also provides a framework for how States should get the job done. Unfortunately, the world has been slow to ratify the Convention–not until Barbados ratified it in 2009 did the actually Convention go into effect. To date, only 40 nations have ratified. None of the major maritime powers–US, China, UK, France, Russia–have yet to sign it. (For a good discussion of why the UK and others have not ratified read this.) Clearly, much as to be done before our submerged cultural heritage is truly protected and preserved.
Also, I have my doubts about the second claim in UNESCO’s anniversary press release. As I see it, treasure hunting has, if anything, become less stigmatized in the eyes of the public. Look no further than the recent laudatory accounts of Odyssey Marine–they even had/have their own TV show! Despite the Convention, there remains a clear disconnect between how the public views land archaeology and underwater archaeology. As UNESCO’s Tim Curtis recently told the BBC:
“The looting of the tombs of Tutankhamen is now considered unacceptable, so why is the looting of shipwrecks considered acceptable?”
Great question. Treasure hunters have clearly been winning the PR battle. Only with stronger scholarship, better public engagement, and increased public accessibility to the world’s submerged cultural sites do preservations have any chance against treasure hunters. Fortunately, some great work is being done–see the The Museum of Underwater Archaeology and the folks up at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary for models for combining scholarship, public engagement, and accessibility. The development of underwater trails and virtual museums around the world is a fantastic, scalable solution to this global PR/protestion/protection crisis. Still, much work remains.
The line between legitimate salvage and the plundering of our collective cultural heritage is not as blurry as many have made it out to be (salvaging the Rena=legitimate; salvaging the Titanic=not). Historic or culturally significant shipwrecks and other submerged sites should be left alone. They are finite public resources that should not be used for private gain. The trouble is in the definition of historic and significant. Older than 50 years seems reasonable to me (The UNESCO convention pegs it at 100 years, which means means WWII sites are decades away from being protected!). I should defend 50 years, but this post is already too long–it’ll have to wait for another day…