A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A new UNESCO convention seeks to protect underwater sites.
UNESCO has adopted a Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage that covers "all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical, or archaeological character which have been partially or totally underwater, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years." Included in this definition are sites, structures, vessels, aircraft, and human remains. According to the terms of the convention, adopted last November, commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage is prohibited. States that become signatories must require their citizens to report discoveries of underwater cultural heritage, even if they lie in another signatory's water, and they must require permits for activities that are directed at underwater cultural heritage.
Opposition to the convention by treasure hunters and shipwreck explorers has been strong. They argue that because archaeologists do not have the resources to study more than a small number of wrecks, the majority should be left for "public use." Some also argue that only wrecks more than 200 years old should be covered by the convention, removing from protection such wrecks as the American steamship Arctic, built to compete with the British transatlantic mail service. The Arctic sank off the Newfoundland coast after colliding with another ship in 1854.
Because of recent improvements in technology, few shipwrecks now lie beyond the reach of treasure hunters, many of whom have strong financial backing. Investors anticipating commercial gain are willing to fund looting of wrecks but not always their scientific, systematic excavation. While some new salvors are trying to be more scientific, they have trouble finding collaborators among the scientific community, and the artifacts they recover often end up in private collections. To preserve the world's underwater cultural heritage for future generations, it is imperative that the member states of UNESCO ratify the convention. Once 20 of the 138 member states have become party to the convention, it will take effect. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the United States, which favors "appropriate private sector recovery" of underwater heritage, will be one of those.
One who worked tirelessly for the adoption of the UNESCO Underwater Convention during the past four years is Lyndel V. Prott, the recently retired director of UNESCO's Cultural Heritage Division. To honor her efforts on behalf of the protection of the world's tangible and intangible cultural heritage, both on land and under the sea, the Archaeological Institute of America will be granting her its Public Service Award for 2003. The citation reads, "Lyndel Prott is one of the most intelligent, energetic, and effective forces in the world today campaigning for the protection of the archaeological and cultural heritage of the world's peoples, past and present."
Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.