Only a limited number of historical wrecks or artefacts can be excavated or taken care of by archaeologists. The remainder is often in no peril (unless robbed by treasure hunters), and may remain on-site for future generations. International legislation aims at protecting our heritage against uncontrolled treasure hunting and looting. (European legislation is briefly described under each country in the list of European authorities & contacts.)
Historic shipwrecks on international water are usually subject to salvage laws, thus unidentified and abandoned wrecks go to the finder, sometimes resulting in commercial salvage without any archaeological investigation. Historic wrecks on territorial waters were considered in various ways depending on national legislation.
On November 2, 2001, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted by the plenary session of the General Conference. Article 4 states that any activity relating to underwater cultural heritage should not be subject to the law of salvage or law of finds, unless authorised by the competent authorities, and ensures that any recovery of the underwater cultural heritage achieves its maximum protection. Once it is ratified by enough nations, we will have a more uniform worldwide underwater cultural heritage protection.
Commercial search for and exploitation of valuable items in historical wrecks may ruin the archaeological information.
The Mary Rose, photo © Mary Rose Trust
"To those who merely wish to get rich, I can only recommend the roulette wheels of Monte Carlo. There, the odds are better." (archaeologist Peter Throckmorton in Diving for Treasure)
"Shipwrecks are invaluable in reconstructing life-styles no longer existing and
represent a buried treasure in terms of knowledge about life on board, boat construction and trade routes.
A shipwreck is a time capsule waiting to be unlocked since time stops when a vessel founders."
photo with cultural heritage sign courtesy Norwegian Maritime Museum, this page by Per Åkesson written 1999, rev jul '12
Back to Nordic Underwater Archaeology