Protecting Shipwrecks

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.

 

 

Download PDF The Law of the Sea and International Marine Archaeology 

Download PDF Who owns the remains of ancient shipwrecks found in international waters?

 

Ancient History Timeline (approx.)

3300 BCE Early Bronze Age

2000 BCE Middle Bronze Age

1600 BCE Late Bronze Age

1200 BCE Iron Age

800 BCE Archaic Greece

550 BCE Classical Greece

509 BCE Roman Republic

323 BCE Hellenistic Period

27 BCE Roman Empire

284 CE Late Antiquity

476 CE Fall of the Roma Empire

5th C. CE Early Middle Ages begins

4th c. BCE Mazotos shipwreck. ARU, Photo University of Cyprus

4th c. BCE Mazotos shipwreck. ARU, Photo University of Cyprus

Diving on shipwrecks in ancient times

Diving on shipwrecks goes back further than you might expect. Herodotus tells us that around 500 BCE, the Greek sculptor Scyllias and his daughter Cyana were employed as salvage divers for the Persian king Xerxes. In ancient Roman times urinatores dived on shipwrecks to attempt to salvage goods. Salvaging wrecks became very organised in Roman times and fees were regulated. In shallow water where the urinatores could stand, the share was only one-tenth the value of the goods. From 3.6 to 7.6 metres, the share was one-third and in depths of over 7.6 metres the salvor’s share was one-half of all goods recovered. (The name urinatores may come from the fact that the divers urinated a lot due to pressure under water).

Modern Greek stamp showing Alexander the Great diving

Modern Greek stamp showing Alexander the Great diving

close-up of restored hull of Ma'agan Mikhael classical shipwreck, Hecht Museum

close-up of restored hull of Ma'agan Mikhael classical shipwreck, Hecht Museum

Reconstruction of the 4th c. BCE Kyrenia ship, Thalassa Museum, Ayia Napa, Cyprus

Reconstruction of the 4th c. BCE Kyrenia ship, Thalassa Museum, Ayia Napa, Cyprus

Joni Wreck, Albania photo: RPMN/ACMR

Joni Wreck, Albania photo: RPMN/ACMR

SCUBA (or Aqua-Lung)

Did you know that SCUBA (self contained underwater breathing system) was first used on a shipwreck site by Jacques Cousteau and Fernand Benoit when they investigated the 3rd c. BCE shipwreck at Grand Congloué between1951 and 1957.
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