Underwater Heritage

– A treasure trove to protect

    Modern technology has opened the gates of a new world under the Earth's oceans; a world that has preserved several chapters of human history in the form of harbours, cities, temples, statues and shipwrecks that have been sunk after losing a battle with the elements or by the cannon fire of an enemy (see below). However, this technology, brought to the world's attention with the discovery of the Titanic is not only being used to explore this realm, but also to pillage it. Sites are worked over by treasure hunters – from unwitting sports divers and fishermen to major commercial outfits led by adventurers such as Bob Marx. Profiting from a less than watertight legal situation they remove valuable artefacts and destroy evidence essential for the archaeologist to unravel the story behind these sites and which can yield up so much about our past, as witnessed by the excavation of the Mary Rose, the Wasa and the Alexandria Lighthouse. UNESCO has been called on by the archaeological and legal communities along with numerous Member States to help rectify this situation by preparing an international convention for the protection of this vast underwater treasure trove.

In 1589, a flotilla of English corsairs commanded by the Duke of Cumberland sank the Nuestra Señora de Guia off the coast of Terceira in the Portuguese Azores Archipelago in the mid-Atlantic. The Spanish galleon had taken on a cargo of gold in the Mexican port of Veracruz and was on its way home. This was the era when Spanish and Portuguese galleons regularly returned from the New World and the West Indies laden with gold, silver and precious stones, making an obligatory stopover in the Azores before reaching their homeport on the Iberian peninsula.

"The Nuestra Señora was only one of hundreds of ships registered as sunk in Portuguese waters during this golden age of adventurers", wrote journalist Javier Garcia in a recent article published in the Spanish daily, El País. According to records at the National Museum of Archeology in Lisbon, some 850 ships have gone to the bottom of the seas surrounding the Azores since 1522. At least 90 of them were Spanish galleons and another 40 of them Portuguese Indiamen.

These wrecks constitute "one of the most outstanding underwater archaeological sanctuaries on the planet", Garcia continued, time capsules that could provide a remarkable view of life as it was back then, complete with all of its trappings. The archaeologists know this. But so do the treasure hunters, who now have access to incredible technology allowing them to reach depths that up until recently the oceans had forbidden to human beings.

At least six international companies, representing the treasure hunters' big league, set up base in Portugal with the aim of exploiting this immensely rich heritage, expecting to profit from laws passed in 1993 that, according to Portuguese archaeologist Francisco Alves, welcomed them in. UNESCO expressed its concern at the time and the archaeological community girded itself for battle. The laws were effectively blocked and, according to Alves, are about to be changed.

The Bottom Line

But none of these companies would blatantly say they were in it for the booty. Thus, a "better knowledge of our past, the way ships were built and armed; an understanding of historical and cultural development; and the contribution of important archeological objects to national arid regional museums", is the stated goal of the Arqueonauticas company, directed by Vice-Admiral Isaias Gomes Teixeira.

Paolo MonteiroHowever the bottom line is that these "explorations" must be paid for, and they don't come cheap. "You can't do archaeology and hunt for treasure at the same time", argues Paulo Monteiro, a marine archaeologist from the Angra do Heroismo Museum in Terceira. "Treasure hunting is driven by commercial logic; time is money, so they have to work quickly to raise as many artefacts as possible and sell them. An archaeologist can spend 10 years or more studying and excavating a ship, conserving its objects and publishing findings. We gain an enormous amount of information and knowledge from this work. With treasure hunters, all of this is lost; records are not kept and artefacts are spread around the world in private collections. This is tragic, for humanity as a whole and especially for Portugal; where there is no knowledge, there is no memory".

A similar situation exists in the Philippines, another stopover for the Spaniards, and an important maritime trade link with Southeast Asia for more than 1,000 years. "We cannot even begin to count the wrecks in Philippine territorial waters ... it would not be surprising if there were thousands of them," says Wilfredo Ronquillo, head of the archaeology division of the national museum in Manila. "The Museum has a permit system for joint archaeological projects with organizations or companies wanting to do so. Under this system one-of-a-kind items go to the government and the rest are divided on a 50-50 basis. The weakness is that there is very little control. Some enterprising foreigners even contact fishermen and show them tradeware ceramics they are interested in buying. Now a lot of fishermen are looking for these underwater cultural resources and destroying sites as a result".

The same story is heard in the Caribbean, and the seas surrounding the countries of Southeast Asia, off Viet Nam, Malaysia and Indonesia. In Turkey, a survey conducted in 1974 concluded that there was no classical age wreck off its coasts that had not been interfered with.

"Did I Hear $16 Million?"

That treasure hunting has become big business is further evidenced by sales at the international auction houses. Christie's has become the world specialist in what it calls "material recovered legally or under license from historical shipwrecks". In 1986 it raised $16m from the sale of 3,786 lots of Chinese porcelain and gold ingots from what was called the "Nanking Cargo", salvaged from the Dutch-flagged Geldermahlsen, wrecked in 1752 in the South China Sea. And in 1992, the sale of porcelain known as the "Vung Tao Cargo," raised from a wreck off the southern coast of Viet Nam, brought in almost $7.2 million.

An increasing number of countries are becoming aware of the urgency of the situation. But the means to contain treasure hunters are limited and the issues involved complex. To fill the gaps and provide a framework for dealing with these issues, UNESCO, the UN Office of Legal Affairs, Division of Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have begun working on an international convention to protect underwater cultural heritage. "This is not a new field for UNESCO," says Lyndel Prott, the head of the Organization's International Standards Section. "In the late 1950s we expressed concern about underwater heritage and set out guidelines for underwater archaeological excavation, essentially covering activities in inland and territorial waters of states. Technological developments since then, and the spread of sport diving have greatly increased the threat to underwater sites to the point where further regulation is urgently needed."

The International Law Association (ILA) has presented a draft to UNESCO which could be used as the basis for an eventual convention. But what exactly would it aim to protect?

According to the ILA draft "underwater cultural heritage means all underwater traces of human existence including sites, structures, artefacts and human remains, together with their archaeological and natural contexts, as well as wrecks, such as vessels, aircraft, other vehicles or any part thereof, its cargo or other contents, together with its archaeological and natural heritage."

"This definition was designed to help administrators and courts to decide whether something is covered by the convention," explains Graham Henderson, Chairman of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) International Committee on Underwater Cultural Heritage, and Director of the Maritime Museum of Western Australia. However it has its limits. "It only applies to heritage which has been lost or abandoned and submerged for at least 100 years. It would be up to states parties to introduce national legislation covering sites underwater for less than this. But it would leave the Titanic, which sank in 1912, unprotected," said Henderson. "Neither does the draft apply to any warship, military aircraft, naval auxiliary, or other vessels or aircraft and their contents owned or operated by a state."

The Titanic also illustrates another major problem, that of heritage sunk in international waters. The ILA draft proposes three solutions: one is for states to control the activities of their nationals; another is to forbid the use of their ports to service vessels engaged in excavation by improper methods; and the third is to forbid entry to their territory of artefacts improperly raised.

In terms of the types of activities that can be carried out on a site, the ILA suggests that as a first option, underwater heritage should be preserved in situ. It proposes that public access be encouraged, and that non-destructive techniques, non-intrusive sampling, be given preference to excavation. It insists that investigation be accompanied by adequate documentation.

The treasure hunters argue that this approach benefits very few, that while a wreck lies buried no-one gets to share its knowledge or contents, and that archaeologists, research institutes and governments don't have the means to pay for excavation, especially in deep water.

However the public interest generated by the discovery of such a dramatic slice of history can often overcome these problems. Consider Turkey, where underwater excavations at Bodrum led to a tripling of the region's population and made it one of the country's most visited sites; or the Wasa wreck, which is the biggest tourist drawcard in Sweden bringing $300 per tourist per day to the national economy; the Western Australian Maritime Museum with a quarter of a million tourists per annum; and the wreck of the Mary Rose in the U.K. which has been visited by more than four million people. On the other hand, the commercial recovery of the Geldermahlsen's porcelain not only led to the destruction of the wreck, but the $16 m raised from the cargo's sale was a one-off profit. Had it been placed in a museum, it may have raised this amount annually for the local community, and allowed the international community to share the discovery of this window on the past.

by Sue Williams

Published in UNESCO Sources, February 1997

Published on Nordic Underwater Archaeology, Feb '99, by permission from UNESCO

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