The 19th century geologist and lawyer Sir Charles Lyell said that «It is probable that a greater number of monuments of the skill and industry of man will in the course of ages be collected together in the bed of the oceans, than will exist at any one time on the surface of the continents.» (Principles of Geology, 1830)
It has become obvious in recent years that a good part of our cultural heritage lies underwater and that there is an urgency to protect it from looting and destruction and to preserve it for future generations. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001) is designed to protect all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character, which have been under water for over 100 years and recognises the historic and cultural value of shipwrecks and the need to preserve them. The Convention consists of a main text and an annex, which sets out the “Rules for activities directed at underwater cultural heritage”. It maintains that in situ preservation of underwater cultural heritage should be considered as the first option for protecting wreck sites before allowing or engaging in any further activities. The recovery of objects may, however, be authorized for the purpose of making a significant contribution to the protection or knowledge of underwater cultural heritage. The convention stipulates that underwater cultural heritage should not be commercially exploited for trade or speculation, and that it should not be irretrievably dispersed ie. sold to numerous buyers around the world. It also promotes exchange of information, the training of underwater archaeologists and public awareness.
UNESCO has developed a Code of Ethics for Diving on Submerged Archaeological Sites that encourages responsible non-intrusive access to observe or document such heritage in situ and to ensure the respect for submerged heritage by each individual diver.
It is hoped that these efforts will help protect shipwrecks from being looted and preserve them and their secrets for future generations.
To learn more about the UNESCO convention watch the video below.