10-year Anniversary: UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

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…

For more about UNESCO’s Underwater Cultural Heritage program see their great website. The video above, produced by UNESCO, is a great primer as well. See also this informative site.

Many thanks for @OdeToCapitalism for sending me this BBC story and raising the question: “Should shipwrecks be left along?” What do you think?



Filed under Announcement, Shipwreck culture

11 responses to “10-year Anniversary: UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

  1. L. Charnes

    The line between legitimate salvage and plundering is, indeed, blurry and often seems to hinge on the amount of time that has elapsed since the sinking and who was on the ship in question. Much of land archaeology is considered plundering by the ancestors of the people whose tombs are being dug up (see NAGPRA). If all graves on land were placed off-limits, modern archaeologists would have precious little to do. So why are shipwrecks different?

    Is salvaging the Garisoppa’s silver plundering a war grave? If so, so was the raising of the Vasa and the Mary Rose. Is it any worse than the current arcaeological digs in the former WWI trenches of northern France? Excavation of every shipwreck is the work of disturbing a grave, but no one objects to digging up the final resting places of Romans, Phoenicians, or even Europeans who sank far enough in the past that no one remembers them.

    As soon as academic archaeologists understand that commercial salvors are their cousins and not their betes noir, we can ensure trained archaeologists accompany all commercial salvage operations so the wrecks are documented (much in the way that Odyssey and a few others operate now). Everyone’s a salvor in this business.

    • Jamin Wells

      Thank you for the comment because it gets to one of the core disagreements between treasure hunters and archaeologists. You are right–archaeologists and salvors both bring stuff up from the bottom, be it from shipwrecks or other submerged cultural sites (from pipelines to middens). But their motivation for doing so couldn’t be more different (I’ve worked for both camps; they’re hardly cousins, more like Athens and Sparta–one is driven by profit the other by knowledge and safety). More important is what happens to the stuff brought up from the seafloor. Salvors sell to the highest bidder. When possible, groups like Odyssey add value to their finds, conserving artifacts and identifying their provenance in the wreck site. What’s worth more, a gold coin from the ocean or a gold coin from the captain’s cabin of X ship? Archaeologists conserve artifacts in perpetuity and put them on public display or store them in public depositories–public resources remain in the public domain. With treasure hunters, finite public resources are sold for private gain and end up in private collections. I don’t see how that can be construed to be acceptable. Your examples work great here–would it be OK to sell 80% of artifacts found in WWI trenches?

      I certainly hope archaeologists continue to study terrestrial and submerged sites in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner. They have much to teach us about who we are and how the world as we know it came to be. But archaeological study does not necessarily entail mass excavation. Indeed, underwater archaeologists have long been pioneers in noninvasive site analyses, which sidesteps some of the issues relevant to NAGPRA you raised. It’s important to ask why should we dig everything up now, especially when the problems of long-term artifact conservation are so well known. When treasure hunters bring up artifacts they do so to turn a profit. I very much doubt the Garisoppa’s silver will be melted down and sold as good ‘ol Ag–it will be sold as a relic and that is plunder not legitimate salvage. Salvage is the act of returning wrecked vessels and cargoes to the stream of commerce. Treasure hunters do not strip vessels and sell the pieces as parts or scrap–they sell relics whose intrinsic value has been enhanced by its affiliation with a historic shipwreck. In this case, they are introducing not returning items to the stream of commerce. (I’m sure someone else has written far more eloquently/persuasively along this line.). They are selling our shared history, our common heritage, and our future knowledge to the few able to purchase it. That seems criminal to me.

      • L. Charnes

        It seems the objection here is the pursuit of profit. But is that necessarily bad if it leads to a good end?

        Of the estimated three million shipwrecks worldwide, how many are realistically within the reach of the typical academic marine archaeologist to do more than basic site survey? One percent? Whatever the number, the rest are lost to academia and essentially lost to the world. But what if there’s a reason to find and visit some of these wrecks beyond the simple accretion of knowledge?

        For example: how much would we know about the SS Republic had there not been millions of dollars in bullion and specie aboard that ship? Likely nothing. But because there was a reason to overcome huge technical and logistical hurdles to get to and work that wreck, we have a vast store of information about a 19th-Century maritime time capsule. Yes, Odyssey sold the coins and bullion; but to use your formulation, that was simply returning those resources to the stream of commerce (they were, after all, money before they ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic). The same holds for the Garisoppa’s silver; if salvaged, it will simply be returned to the stream of commerce from whence it came, either in ingot form or worked into coins or other objects. To call these “public resources” is accurate only because once the insurance is paid, according to maritime law these valuable objects are fair game for whomever can get to them. Coins, bullion and raw materials aren’t artworks and don’t have any value beside that they can fetch on the open market. Perhaps 2000 years from now, an 1880 Double Eagle will be a priceless artifact; now, it’s just a coin, albeit an expensive one.

        Money aside, Odyssey salvaged and conserved thousands of non-monetary artifacts from Republic, many of which are featured in a traveling museum show that tens of thousands of people have been able to see around the country. I suspect the vast majority of artifacts unearthed by academic archaeologists never see the light of day again, far less get that kind of exposure. (I once saw a heartbreaking picture of amphorae stacked like cordwood in a basement at the INA’s Bodrum facility. Public depositories?)

        I propose that this is the way all commercial salvors ought to do things. Unfortunately, any academic archaeologist who works on a commercial project risks never being able to go back to the university fold; he/she will be blackballed, no matter the quality of the work he/she did on that project. This is ridiculous and petty. With the steady decline in enrollments in the field and the draining of public funding, academic archaeologists ought to consider joining with commercial interests in a mutually beneficial partnership. The archaeologists gain access to tools and resources they’ll never see otherwise (unless they’re at WHOI and their name is Ballard); the commercial salvors get a tremendous contrinution of knowledge that can be used to more efficiently process the wreck site and, through donation of the non-remunerative artifacts, get some level of tax or regulatory relief.

        I should add that I’m neither a salvor nor an archaeologist, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve been interested in marine archaeology for years. What seems criminal to me is that in the name of ideological purity, some academics are willing to let artifacts turn to dust on the ocean floor (thus lost for all time to everyone) rather than let someone outside the fold make a buck by rescuing those artifacts.

  2. nadina

    @L.Charnes: correct me if I’m misunderstanding you, but i’m not really following the logic involved in proposing that rescuing artifacts by releasing them into the “stream of commerce” equates with rescuing artifacts to release them into an academic stream of consciousness; i think that the intent has everything to do with why shipwrecks should be protected. perhaps some items could fit into your logic, but you’d need to set up some existential quantifier, &#8707, to exclude the myriad of valuable reasons that archeologists salvaging should take precedence to looters “making a buck”. The logic “let artifacts turn to dust” → “let someone outside the fold make a buck” doesn’t seem valid if you appreciate the epistemology of artifact??
    Perhaps the real argument is a phenomenological one: what does one consider an artifact and how do you appreciate it’s function?

    • L. Charnes

      Let’s consider the meaning of the word “artifact”:

      “An object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a tool, weapon, or ornament of archaeological or historical interest.” (American Heritage Dictionary)
      “An object, such as a tool, that was made in the past.” (Cambridge Dictionary of American English)

      Two definitions of the same word, at first blush similar, but with two very different underlying meanings. Who uses which definition may account for some of your confusion.

      If you use the first definition, you set up a divide: some old things are important enough to preserve and study, while others are not. By extension, this implies some things are of academic interest, while others’ worth is mostly in what can be had for them in the open market (if they have any intrinsic worth at all).

      If you use the second definition, then everything old is an artifact; the often-explicit extension of this is, all artifacts are of academic interest and shouldn’t be commercialized. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument calls into question the legitimacy of private markets in art and antiques. After all, that Chippendale chair and that Goya are arguably precious cultural artifacts and should be studied and preserved in a university vault rather than adorn someone’s house.

      You can probably guess I believe in the first definition. Do you believe in the second?

      When we start using the words “looting” and “plunder,” we venture into very shaky ground. By current standards, all archaeology that took place before Pitt Rivers came on the scene was by definition looting, which means that some of the greatest antiquities collections in the world’s finest museums are actually the spoils of plunder (as are the holdings of many if not most of the world’s great universities). Even 20th-Century archaeology has been considered grave-robbing by those whose ancestors ended up in storage trays in a laboratory. In that gross commerce intrudes into even these areas in the form of bequests, endowed chairs, grants, fellowships, museum attendance receipts, book royalties, TV appearance fees and the like, can we really say that archaeology is entirely free of monetary motives?

      You object to the concept of someone “making a buck” by saving an object/artifact/whatever from turning to dust. However, isn’t that the entire foundation of cultural resource management and rescue archaeology — saving objects/artifacts from destruction by time or development? And isn’t most CRM carried out by private firms that charge fees (sometimes very lucrative ones) for doing the work? Does that make their work ethically suspect or invalid? I would say no; I’d rather an object/artifact be saved from oblivion even if it ends up in private hands for a while (some museum will get it eventually when the owner dies or needs a tax break). But there are those on the more doctrinaire side of academia who say yes and would rather that object/artifact be destroyed than fall into the hands of someone outside academia (or — the horror — an auction house).

      There are no absolutes. Some objects should be studied and preserved. Some might as well be sold. It’s the reasonable people in the middle who should hash out which is which, not the extremists at either end of the argument.

  3. nadina

    Hi. I’m glad you took the time to explain further. so by allowing others to access artifacts on shipwrecks there is hope that EVENTUALLY the artifacts they sell end up in a museum or historic preservation society? that’d be ideal 🙂 I’m glad that happens sometimes. ∃

    i wish i trusted all of humankind like that, but i don’t.

    i believe that regulations, policy, and science are mandated to prevent unnecessary abuses, negligence, and destruction, and archeology as a science doesn’ t only rescue artifacts from oblivion, but it intends to understand their temporal implication and share that knowledge with others. of course I know that every system is imperfect but i think it’s the lesser of the two evils; i prefer to have standards/regulations in place over trusting human altruism without accountable consequences, respectively. Private owners don’t always protect the goods they buy, nor do they honor and respect them (many artifacts are often painted over, stained, defaced). I am not an archeologist either, but I work in neuroscience and psychology and I see artifacts as a way of understanding the human condition of an untold story, much like memories are understood as a science. If the wrong persons have access to this information first, preservation is tainted and that which is retrieved is often obscured/manipulated/falsely implanted. i am glad you share a passion for history/archeology; most people’s apathy prevents them from protecting or preserving much of significance.

    every science requires fees. necessary training and reverence have a cost that i believe is a worthy fare. there isn’t a guarantee that the private “looters” or private owners will treat the site/artifact with reverence, therefore, I see it is as negligence if the sites are unprotected by policy.

    I agree that the ideal decision maker would be a person of middle ground that understands the field from both extreme perspectives. i also agree that absolutes are difficult to see without objective measure, which is why i would prefer to have scientists make the decision about which artifacts should go to the public hands and which should be preserved for cultural heritage reasons as science has the best tools to determine things objectively and categorically [with some attempt at quantification].

    i also agree with the first definition of artifact and it’s double implicity; as it holds that an artifact has historical or archeological relevance, scientists (archeologists and historians) should be first to access shipwreck [or other site] remains and decide whether an item is an artifact or an item to be sold.

    • L. Charnes

      Thanks for your reply. I’m glad we can find some common understanding and agree there are shades of gray in the topic that require the consensus of reasonable people in order to find a way forward.

      I don’t discount the work of archaeologists; what they do interests me and of course I enjoy the fruits of their labors. What you said about scientists and historians being able to access wrecks to decide what objects need to be preserved for study and which can be sold without harm dovetails nicely with a point I’d made in my original comment: the only way scientists may be able to reach those wrecks is in partnership with commercial salvors.

      I’ve believed for some time that all commercial salvors proposing to work a wreck that falls under the UNESCO 100-year threshhold should be required to include a qualified archaeologist in their expeditions. This person would be able to advise the salvage master on artifact preservation, select objects to be set aside for further study, and ensure proper documentation of the wreck site. If the company doesn’t follow basic guidelines in these matters, the archaeologist would call them to account, perhaps with the consequence of fines or operating restrictions imposed by UNESCO or the responsible jurisdiction. I don’t think any reputable company would balk at these conditions if the upside is gaining salvage rights that may pay them handsomely for their troubles. (The disreputable ones just wouldn’t get their salvage rights, or would have to channel some of their profits in bribes to the appropriate officials, which they’re likely to do anyway, UNESCO convention or no.)

      But here’s the rub: the visceral hatred academic archaeologists hold for commercial salvors all but guarantees that any university archaeologist who goes on such an expedition will be blackballed from academia, that his/her papers will not be accepted in academic journals, and he/she will not be welcomed at conferences in the field. Does this make any sense to you? It doesn’t to me.

      The advent of CRM and commercial archaeology (for want of any better description) may make all this moot in a few years. There will come to be a group of archaeologists who no longer rely on academia for their livelihoods and will be free to take on commissions such as this. Then the battle will shift to the question of what to do with the artifacts they’ve pulled from the ocean, conserved, studied and interpreted. I hope by then we’ve sorted out this problem.

  4. nadina

    much better understood 🙂 thanks for clarifying.
    and what a cute wombat!!!!

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