Koichiro Matsuura has an interesting editorial in yesterday’s Miami Herald on Odyssey Marine, underwater archaeology and the Black Swan wreck. He is exactly right about the number of wrecks under the sea, how important they are, and what a resource they could be if excavated scientifically. I agree that commercial exploitation certainly damages underwater archaeological sites, but UNESCO needs to do a better job of bridging the gap between archaeology and commerce.
Rather than attempting to ban all commercial use of underwater sites, why not move forward and show how commercial exploitation can be sensitive to the archaeological context when done properly? Instead of taking a combative approach, why not co-opt these salvage operations as archaeological efforts?
Admiralty law is one of the oldest branches of the law, dating back thousands of years. The presumption has long been that the salvor will be entitled to a portion of what they find on the ocean because they have risked their equipment, or their lives in some cases to salvage underwater sites. That general position will not change any time soon. The 2001 UNESCO Underwater Heritage Convention takes an aggressive line, and prohibits all commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage. This is a step many nations will refuse to take. Only 15 nations have signed on, and the convention requires 20 before it enters into force. In this case, by arguing too vehemently, I think UNESCO has left itself with no say on the disposition of underwater sites found in international waters.
Here is the full text of Matsuura’s editorial:
By KOICHIRO MATSUURA
It may be the richest treasure ever discovered in a shipwreck — hundreds of thousands of gold and silver coins. A private firm announced it had recovered them from a colonial-era vessel, dubbed the ”Black Swan.” The story came out last May and attracted worldwide attention. But the Black Swan isn’t a unique case. A few months ago, important finds were made of sunken ships, and at least one of them, off the coast of Cirebon, in Java, was destroyed. Many other such wrecks have been found and looted in recent years, in locations ranging from the northern Atlantic to the South China Sea.
Underwater cultural heritage is as precious as heritage on land. It comprises archaeological sites of great significance such as the ruins of the Alexandria lighthouse, one of the ancient world’s seven wonders; the Carthage of antiquity in North Africa; the fabulous Mahabalipuram and Dwarka temples in India; and numerous Neolithic villages that remain submerged in the Black Sea.
It also includes the remains of King Philip II of Spain’s invincible Armada and Kublai Khan’s fleet, as well as an estimated three million sunken ships scattered on the ocean floors. These underwater archaeological sites are often better preserved than sites on dry land because cultural heritage is protected by a slow rate of deterioration and the lack of oxygen. Their inaccessibility further shields them from looting. They can therefore teach us a great deal about the origins and history of civilization.
There is an urgent need to protect this underwater cultural heritage, which for the last several years has come increasingly under threat. Technical progress in detection and diving and escalating prices on the international market for objects snatched from the deep have led to the loss of many particularly valuable archaeological sites and seen their precious cultural objects dispersed. The problem is further aggravated by the overly prevalent view of such archaeological sites as ”treasures” that can be discovered and appropriated. They should in fact be considered essential elements of a common cultural heritage, as communal property to be preserved.
The perspective must change. UNESCO has been fighting for years to change it. In November 2001, its General Conference adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This international treaty, which now counts 15 states parties, will enter into force when 20 countries have ratified it.
The UNESCO text defines underwater cultural heritage as ”all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character that have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years.” It promotes in situ preservation, given the importance of the historical context of the submerged cultural objects as well as the favorable conditions for conserving these objects, namely the lack of oxygen and slow deterioration as long as they remain underwater.
Without presuming to resolve the sensitive issue of property of cultural objects that may be disputed between several states — generally the state of the ship’s flag and the coastal state — and without prohibiting professional archaeology or preventing recovery activities by explorers working in responsible ways, the text establishes the principle that “Underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited.”
The international community must mobilize to ratify the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. If we condemn acts of looting in which archaeological sites are gutted with bulldozers or Mayan steles and Khmer sculptures torn out with chain-saws, then we must also sanction underwater looting that deprives future generations of the context surrounding artifacts. The international community must have means at its disposal that are commensurate with its ambitions to protect the integrity of its underwater cultural heritage.
Koichiro Matsuura is director-general of UNESCO.