The Sunken Past: Shipwrecks Lost in Translation

UNESCO - To Dig Or Not to Dig?

The question of to dig or not to dig has deeply divided marine archaeology over the last decade. In a hyper-urbanized world, whose seas increasingly reveal shipwrecked wonders, is it nobler to look and not touch, preserving what exists for future generations in an eco-friendly bubble? Or does society have an obligation to excavate, study and publish to expand the sum of finite human knowledge scattered across the seven seas?

Since UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2001, the concept of in situ preservation has taken centre stage in the theatre of marine archaeology from high government departments to the living rooms of bemused weekend wreck divers. Today the idea has morphed into arguably the most politicized and controversial Frankenstein in the history of underwater archaeology.

The producers of the Convention play are naturally familiar with their script, but the cast seems to have been left scratching its head. At many levels of university life, heritage management, and especially amongst the grass roots of the global shipwreck diving community, managerial confusion reigns supreme.

Numerous international conferences and meetings convened and attended over the last decade by heritage managers, contract archaeologists and commercial archaeologists leave no doubt that the core sense of in situ preservation has been lost in translation. It was specifically to help ‘unmuddy’ these waters that Wreck Watch initiated a questionnaire in August 2011 to explore the meaning and reception of this principle, especially to inform practitioners at the grass roots level.

Titanic - Dive & Study or Leave & Memorialize?

The 2001 UNESCO Convention was originally drafted to combat ‘treasure hunting’, which was considered by a powerful union of bureaucrats and heritage managers to be the major destroyer of underwater cultural heritage. Certainly, there is no doubt that some projects, epitomized by the salvage of 350,000 artefacts from the Tek Sing (lost 1822), grossly neglected the value of contextual archaeology. UNESCO rightly raises similar concerns over the Geldermalsen (wrecked near Singapore in 1752) and the Titanic.

To its credit the Convention has increased public awareness about the ethical indecency of plundering wrecks. Truth be told, however, treasure hunting was already far down the road to extinction by 2001 as self-imposed enlightenment led to the emergence of commercial marine archaeology, which in cases displays impressive skills of project planning, site recording, publication, fundraising, public education and media outreach.

Designed to exterminate a fading threat, in situ preservation was instead reinvented as a broader tool to protect underwater cultural heritage at risk from a host of threats and ill-conceived excavation. Custodians who had successfully cared for the submerged past for decades now found themselves on the wrong side of the law as in situ preservation was heralded in government circles as the preferred and ideal option.

At a session focused on ‘In Situ Preservation’ at the Institute of Archaeologists’ annual conference at Southport, England, in April 2010, in situ was described in separate talks by two university professors as UNESCO’s preferred approach (which Ulrike Guérin dispelled at the event as inaccurate). Widespread confusion and trepidation peppered the conference on maritime archaeology convened at the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore, in June 2011 alongside serious concern that in situ clashes with much of Southeast Asia’s chosen governmental modus operandi.

Titanic Cash: Education or Plunder?

And in the recent Ministry of Defence and Department of Culture, Media and Sport response to the public consultation over the fate of HMS Victory (1744) the idea of in situ “was in the main favoured by archaeological bodies, many of whom pointed out that in situ management of historic wreck sites was the preferred option of the guidelines set out in the Annex to the 2001 UNESCO Convention for the protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage”. An arc of continuity links this document with the Burlington House seminar on the UNESCO Convention held in London in October 2005 by the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Nautical Archaeology Society, the Council for British Archaeology and the UNESCO UK Committee, where one prominent speaker stated that the 2001 Convention provides for “conservation & maintenance of archaeological heritage, preferably in situ”, accurately reflecting the tone of the assembly.

Serious concern over the incompatibility of in situ preservation with traditional excavation partly underlies the Penn-Brock Statement of Principles and Best Practices for Underwater Archaeology and the Stewardship of Underwater Cultural Heritage in the Mediterranean released in November 2010 following two conference consultations with leading specialists, especially university personnel, working specifically in the Mediterranean Sea. A summary of the opinions derived from these events heightened sensitivity that “Intrusive explorations, moreover, are potentially in conflict with the concern for in situ preservation articulated in the 2001 UNESCO Convention (Annex Rule 1) and raise questions about what circumstances justify such an intervention, who is properly qualified to undertake different types of research related to UCH, and who has the authority to make these decisions.”

Stirling Castle, 1703: Are Annual Multibeam Surveys Good In situ Preservation or Managed Neglect? © Wessex Archaeology, 2009.

As a consequence, reference to and recommendation of in situ preservation was conspicuously dropped from the resultant Penn-Brock Statement, which instead loosely stipulated that “Archaeological research plans should set preservation and the advancement of knowledge as their primary objective”. In my view the perceived tension between excavation and in situ preservation strongly underlay the formulation of the Penn-Brock Statement, in tandem with growing concern that the UNESCO Convention has been disproportionately directed by bureaucrats and lawyers, instead of by the protagonists of underwater archaeology.

Many maritime stakeholders are deeply worried that their interests are being ignored by governmental heritage bodies to paper over cracks in State managerial and budgetary failings. In the case of the Stirling Castle, a Royal Navy warship lost off southern England’s Goodwin Sands in the great storm of 1703, and the best preserved pre-modern hull in UK territorial waters, long-term licencee Robert Peacock fears that UK heritage departments are hiding behind the UNESCO Convention (‘Management of Neglect’, Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites. Annual Report 2008, 16-17). While deeply buried sites can be managed in situ off the UK, in the case of the Stirling Castle he has found through annual monitoring “that by adopting in-situ preservation the site has been left to be physically destroyed by the elements over the last 10 years with no protection. If this is how we are to manage our protected sites (which I can accept) then we must consider changing the wording from “preservation” (which it is clearly not) to “staged and managed neglect”. Comparable strong opinions span the cross-section between grass-roots avocational wreck divers and university lecturers.

Questionnaire Results

Uncertainty about how UNESCO intends in situ preservation to be interpreted lay at the heart of the 2011 Wreck Watch questionnaire, which was submitted to marine archaeologists/archaeological divers who have managed an underwater project or served as a supervisor on such a project; to university personnel who teach/support marine archaeology; heritage personnel (museums, charitable bodies, independent organizations) involved in management issues and policy in marine archaeology; and specialists involved in the study of artefacts derived from underwater cultural heritage (eg. conservators, ceramic/hull analysts).

The 58 respondents well represented these classes with the exception of commercial archaeology, which was under-represented in the number of replies:

• Marine archaeologists: 27%

• Contract archaeologists: 21%

• University lecturers: 17%

• Government heritage managers: 15%

• Commercial archaeologists: 10%

• Naval historians: 7%

• Conservators: 3%

From the total respondents, 57% felt that as an overall fundamental management policy the application of in situ preservation to underwater cultural heritage is a positive strategy. A further 46% felt that it was not. Rated between 1 and 10 (1 negative and ten positive), the impact of in situ preservation as a management tool received a current operational credibility rating of 54%.

Disagreement existed concerning whom this management tool is aimed at, with 63% of respondents answering that it was applicable to all stakeholders (contract archaeologists, commercial archaeologists and university projects). The remaining respondents provided multiple replies in which 25% indicated that the policy was not intended for contract archaeologists, 17% felt that it was not relevant to commercial archaeology and 21% excluded university projects as within its remit.

This polarized reception was qualified by personal statements that oscillated widely in understanding and, indeed, sentiment. A UK protected shipwreck licencee pointed out that if followed literally in situ preservation would have prevented the excavation and recovery of the Mary Rose and the Invincible and felt that “In a single generation we are witnessing the birth, ascendance and decline of underwater archaeology”. Another marine archaeologist commented that “In situ preservation has no supportive scientific evidence. In situ preservation has overwhelming scientific contrary evidence.” Several experienced field practitioners expressed serious concerns about the politicized “widespread canonical application” of the concept, which “can be implemented in a stupid and dysfunctional way, as a prohibition tool, by incompetent, hypocritical, lazy, or just plain stupid bureaucrats…”

On a more accommodating note, the majority of respondents stressed that the idea of in situ preservation should be proactive and is not an excuse for management to do nothing. One balanced comment emphasized that “For many national authorities and institutions in situ preservation seems to be the ONLY option in the management of the UCH. In this sense the UNESCO 2001 convention, for example, has been misinterpreted. OTHER management options (excavation, recovery etc.) are just as valid, especially if the archaeological potential of a given site is to be fully recognized, documented and presented to the public.”

In a similar vein a State marine archaeologist stressed that “When used correctly in situ preservation facilitates future/longer term research, educational/outreach activities and tourism. The methodology has, however, been used as an excuse to do nothing and watch sites deteriorate. The latter is not in situ preservation. In situ preservation requires active intervention. Not all sites are suitable for the use of in situ preservation, but many are.”

Many respondents, including government representatives, strongly felt that shipwrecks should be considered on a case by case basis since in situ “is not always practicable or efficient as depending always on the particular situation of each shipwreck… Sometimes to preserve better a shipwreck is needed to be rescued on the surface than to leave it on the sea bottom, to be restored and conserved with special treatment in the lab.” When applied correctly, “The policy of in situ preservation makes everyone aware that all factors at every site should be considered before excavating (destroying) a site”, in the words of another State marine archaeologist to bring “responsibility and respect for the unknown: the untold story in the relationship of the objects to each other, the unique record laid down in the interaction of the objects with the sea. And what can be learned from that, rather than being simply materialistic or trophyist about the past.”

A cross-section of all respondents’ comments is presented at the end of this article.

To Dig or Not to Dig?

The Wreck Watch questionnaire reveals that despite more than ten years having passed since the UNESCO Convention was adopted, both signatories and countries which have chosen totemically to adhere to its Annex (without having ratified the Convention) have failed to disseminate the correct meaning of in situ preservation as a managerial tool as understood by UNESCO. The reasons for this omission are best left to the various national stakeholders to enquire of their UNESCO representatives.

Gela Ship, Sicily, 5th Century BC.

At least on paper the true meaning of the concept is clear. As early as 2002 the history of the Convention was clarified by Patrick O’Keefe in Shipwrecked Heritage: a Commentary on the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage (Leicester, 2002). As well as discussing the issues of ‘creeping jurisdiction’ over the continental shelf and security considerations relating to marine access for naval purposes that continue to prevent the major maritime powers ratifying the protocol, O’Keefe very concisely explains in relation to Annex Rule 1 that:

“It is quite clear that this provision does not prohibit work on the site of underwater cultural heritage or even its excavation. In situ preservation is the first option only. If interference with the site can be justified then it may be authorized. Justification may consist of the need for scientific investigation of the site to establish what lies there; to save material from a site threatened by development, natural deterioration etc… Any decision to excavate for the purpose of making a scientific contribution to knowledge must be made with a full understanding of other techniques that may be available. These may not have the glamour of an excavation but may be more cost effective and provide the answers sought.”

As to criticisms that in situ preservation is inappropriate for shipwrecks that are continually deteriorating or being destroyed by industry, such as dredging operations, O’Keefe clarifies that “these criticisms ignore the fact that in situ preservation is only the first option. If a wreck is going to be destroyed, for example, during pipeline laying, and there is no way of avoiding it, then it can be excavated.”

Precisely the same interpretation is presented by Ole Varmer (in S. Dromgoole, ed., The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. National Perspectives in Light of the UNESCO Convention 2001, Leiden, 2006: 376), who echoes that “The first option is in situ preservation, but recovery is authorized if consistent with the annexed Rules.” In 2008, Martijn Manders stressed in Museum International (‘In Situ Preservation: the ‘Preferred Option’’, 2008: 31-41) that in regard to in situ preservation “It is, however, important to note that it forms just one part of management, and not – as often interpreted – the only right way forward. Excavation and preservation ex situ remain options for consideration, but must be backed up with strong arguments and a detailed description of planned execution.”

Late Roman Wreck at Pakoštane, Croatia. © P. Groscaux/UNESCO.

More recently, Craig Forrest agreed in International Law and the Protection of Cultural Heritage (London, 2010: 341-2) that “The principle of in situ preservation does not therefore mean that underwater cultural heritage is never recovered, only that it is recovered for a sound reason, and only after pre-disturbance archaeological investigation has been undertaken”, specified as protection from site looting, if wrecks/artifacts are exposed by, and at risk from, a storm or due to natural environmental conditions.

All of these sources readily accessible within scholarly literature expose the current climate of fear swirling around shipwreck management to be either a case of utter misunderstanding or conscious scaremongering. Nevertheless, it has taken UNESCO itself a decade to publish its explanatory Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Rules of the UNESCO 2001 Convention: a Manual (Th. Maarleveld, U. Guérin and B. Egger, eds., UNESCO, 2011), which categorically leaves no room for posturing or politicizing in the future.

Somewhat controversially, UNESCO argues in the manual that any misunderstanding in the wording of Rule 1 (“The protection of underwater cultural heritage through in situ preservation shall be considered as the first option”) is “nurtured by those who do not want any regulation to curtail their interests”, which this questionnaire suggests is inaccurate. Finally and crucially, the document confirms that “However, ‘first option’ is not the same as ‘only option’, or ‘preferred option’. Partial or total excavation may be necessary under certain circumstances and preferable for a number of reasons. Reasons may be external, such as development projects for which many sites need to make way. If their character is fully understood, some sites will be considered sufficiently significant to warrant their preservation in situ in spatial planning processes. This is very unlikely, however, to be the case for sites whose existence or significance is unknown or only vaguely indicated until development is well underway… Another external reason for excavation is the need to secure a site’s continued existence, due to instability of the environment, or due to the fact that stabilizing it would be so exorbitant in cost that in situ preservation would not be the preferred option at all. However, none of these reasons should prevent considering in situ preservation first. This applies to both the initiator and the authority who considers authorization.” After criticizing with some paranoia the “very creative” means identified by initiators of projects “in finding and formulating reasons for excavation by amplifying the magnitude of vigorous threats to a site” (which surely equally relates to heritage bodies inventing reasons to bar excavations), the UNESCO manual concludes by reiterating that:

“Rule 1 explicitly mentions three overall purposes for which activities directed at underwater cultural heritage can be authorized. These substantive reasons are:

• a significant contribution to protection, or

• a significant contribution to knowledge, or

• a significant contribution to enhancement.”

The Mary Rose: Never Again or Positive Education?

The manual’s final commentary encourages, yet cautions, that “In exceptional cases, a very good research design, addressing pertinent research questions, can be reason enough to sacrifice a stable site through excavation. However, it is certainly not the first option, and needs to meet the maximum requirements of state-of-the-art archaeological projects.” Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Rules of the UNESCO 2001 Convention: a Manual is published online in ‘Tutorial on the Rules Concerning Activities Directed at Underwater Cultural Heritage’. For a greater understanding of what in situ preservation means and involves, see the important results of the questionnaire on ‘In-situ Preservation and Storage: Practitioner Attitudes and Behaviours’ (N. Ortmann, J.F. McKinnon and V. Richards, Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 34, 2010: 27-44) and the resources listed below.

Much Ado About Nothing?

The 2011 Wreck Watch questionnaire flags up the concerns and, in many circles, the distrust of the spirit of in situ preservation imposed on marine archaeology today. This is regrettable and unnecessary. The various scholarly explanations of the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage reveal UNESCO’s true meanings and expose the current furore as much ado about nothing. How this meaning has failed to be faithfully disseminated to government and heritage bodies, universities and avocational wreck divers is a disturbing trend that demands serious questions be asked of national UNESCO representatives.

Diving the USS Monitor off North Carolina. © NOAA.

Truth be told, as potent a tool as survey has long been within archaeology, ever since John Ward-Perkins directed the South Etruria survey between the 1950s and 1970s, it is meaningless without knowledge obtained from excavation. Closed shipwreck assemblages have not only vastly tightened ceramic chronologies of all periods on land – the very foundations of stratigraphic archaeology as a science – they are the means of dating and determining the relative importance of sites surveyed underwater. Simply put, we cannot fully understand a shipwreck without comparative excavation.

As a blanket concept in situ preservation is hollow without qualification of the evidential value of a shipwreck site: the key question is surely not how well a site is or should be preserved – coherent or scattered – but to what extent can its character contribute to science and society. Formulating a value-based graded classification system focused on date, cargo/domestic assemblage character, level of preservation and site formation is a priority that UNESCO could choose to develop to equip signatories with a relatively objective and powerful mechanism through which to channel managerial options and, ultimately, to assess the appropriateness of in situ preservation as a valid managerial option.

Total Archaeology? The Archeomar Project, Italy.

In turn, this demands knowledge of regional volumes and types of wrecks and sites as have been registered through intensive surveys conducted off Israel, Croatia and most recently off Italy through the compelling Archaeomar project. In many countries in situ preservation currently ignores these issues, treats wrecks as culturally isolated and is being used as little more than a defensive parking ticket. Legitimate and careful excavation is the cornerstone of archaeology and is here to stay through controlled channels. To argue otherwise misunderstands the structure and purpose of the science.

Rather than solely cling to the UNESCO Convention, countries seriously concerned by looting and excessive excavation could introduce and enforce licensing systems as surely the most effective managerial tool. The strict measures by which the Israel Antiquities Authority grants permits, for instance, has for decades included evidence of university affiliation to ensure good science, proof of project funding and guarantees of preliminary and final publication timetables within two to five years (as well as a report to be submitted to the Authority within a year of each season’s excavation). It is no surprise that alongside America and France Israel has the highest publication rate in the world per capita of sites studied.

Archeomar: Diving for Deep Wrecks with a Submersible.

Finally, based on the results of its questionnaire Wreck Watch calls on UNESCO to present examples of acceptable case studies of in situ projects and excavations to be publicly presented, and for the current climate of all-encompassing excavation denial at the hands of many national heritage bodies to be replaced with respectful clarity. Careful project planning to acknowledge the concept of in situ preservation as the first option underlies the fundamental spirit of the Convention of the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, but the holistic understanding of the true synergy of marine archaeology must not be swept aside. UNESCO is right: the past is a finite resource and its study demands careful thought, rather than short-sighted exploitation. Ultimately, though, like a theatrical play archaeology can and should be approached and interpreted in myriad scientific and creative ways to gain maximum understanding from limited resources.

Select Respondents’ Comments

• “The policy of in situ preservation makes everyone aware that all factors at every site should be considered before excavating (destroying) a site. Promoting this policy does not mean “leave it alone forever”, rather it states that in situ preservation should always be the first option to consider.”

John Broadwater, Maritime Archaeological Consultant & former Senior Underwater Archaeologist, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

• “For many national authorities and institutions in situ preservation seems to be the ONLY option in the management of the UCH. In this sense the UNESCO 2001 convention, for example, has been misinterpreted. OTHER management options (excavation, recovery etc.) are just as valid, especially if the archaeological potential of a given site is to be fully recognized, documented and presented to the public. If in situ preservation will be the dominant trend in the future, there’s a risk of retardation in the development of practical underwater archaeology and waterlogged materials conservation.”

Rami Kokko, Researcher/Conservator, Vrouw Maria project, National Board of Antiquities, Finland.

• “The articles simply mean that underwater cultural heritage is best left alone unless full-scale excavation is planned. Otherwise shipwrecks would be stripped clean by collectors, as happened to so many amphora carriers off France and Italy within scuba’s first decades, or partly destroyed, like most early Spanish ships of exploration.”

 George F. Bass, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Texas A&M University, & Founder & Chairman Emeritus, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, USA.

• “It’s a simpleminded concept which is relevant in some cases, irrelevant to others, and its widespread canonical application reflects mindless fear and loathing of commercial archaeology. Practically speaking it means little or nothing to me.”

Thomas F. King, Writer/Consultant in Cultural Resource/Heritage Management.

• “Full compliance with the UNESCO Convention would bar future excavations like the Mary Rose and the Invincible (1758). In Dr Alex Hildred’s unpublished letter to The Times last December, she says: Mary Rose compliance could not be achieved in the Rules numbering 1, 4, 5, 7, 10, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25 and 29 and in my case add Rule 2 as we sold duplicate artefacts. In a single generation we are witnessing the birth, ascendance and decline of underwater archaeology. The USA who undertakes more archaeological work world wide than any other nation, has not ratified the Convention. The few countries that have ratified, apart from Spain, Portugal and Italy, are virtually unknown in underwater archaeology.”

John M. Bingeman, CEng, MIMechE, Government Licensee Invincible (1758) Historic Wreck Site (1980-2010); Government Licensee ‘The Needles’ Wreck Site (1978-1986).

• “If it means leaving wrecks untouched I would disagree. The touching will be done anyway by trawling, currents and storms. A small number of experts consider the remains of a ship more informative than its cargo. My interests being in the latter and in making three-dimensional history available to the public, I believe that skillful (Odyssey style) recovery better serves those interests. Besides, a ship enveloped in silt or sand at a depth beyond the reach of conventional divers is not doing anything for anyone. With that said, I would not want to see licenses granted to individuals or companies that cannot prove their commitment to treat knowledge as treasure.”

Anonymous.

• “When used correctly in situ preservation facilitates future/longer term research, educational/outreach activities and tourism. The methodology has, however, been used as an excuse to do nothing and watch sites deteriorate. The latter is not in situ preservation. In situ preservation requires active intervention. Not all sites are suitable for the use of in situ preservation, but many are.”

Hanna Steyne.

• “Protection in situ should be faced in the same way as research. We have to choose wisely what to protect and how, and to do that we need to go on with the research. Protection in situ is a good thing but not to be applied as the only method to approach the underwater sites (as sometimes happens).”

Anonymous.

• “In situ preservation has no supportive scientific evidence. In situ preservation has overwhelming scientific contrary evidence.”

Ric Oldfield, Director, Deeptrek.

• “In situ preservation is considered as a fundamental principle for the protection of underwater cultural heritage; practically it is not always practicable or efficient as depending always on the particular situation of each shipwreck; special conditions such as environment, depth, weather etc should be taken under consideration. Sometimes to preserve better a shipwreck is needed to be rescued on the surface than to leave it on the sea bottom, to be restored and conserved with special treatment in the lab. As any shipwreck is a particular case there is no one method to protect an u/w site as it happens on land; till now few methods have been proved efficient in the long term. On the other hand underwater archaeology methods and techniques will be more developed in the future and so in situ preservation ensures underwater cultural heritage for the generations to come.”

Katerina DellaPorta, Director of Antiquities, Greek Ministry for Culture, Athens Greece.

• “The protection of the sites should consider promoting the interest of the local (general) public (especially at the poor countries) to draw their attention to the objectives of safeguarding the wrecks instead of plundering the cargos on the [one] hand, on the other to make use of it till properly recorded”.

Ahmed Omar, Department of Underwater Antiquities, State Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt.

• “In most cases, in-situ preservation does not truly exist as a viable option for the management of submerged cultural resources. All items submerged in the sea are deteriorating at varied rates; it is only a matter of time before they all disappear. A better, more accurate description for this scenario would be in-situ deterioration.”

Gary Randolph,
Vice President,
Mel Fisher’s Treasures
Motivation, 
Key West, USA.

• “It means responsibility and respect for the unknown: the untold story in the relationship of the objects to each other, the unique record laid down in the interaction of the objects with the sea. And what can be learned from that, rather than being simply materialistic or trophyist about the past.”

Shirley Strachan, State Maritime Archaeologist, Victoria, Australia, 1985-2000.

• “The different mechanisms (natural and artificial) acting in seawater don’t warrant the conservation of any item for a long time without continuous supervision of such items. The great amount of underwater archaeological sites in many places around the coasts doesn’t permit realistic supervision of such places. In deep water the distance from the coasts makes it impossible to monitor every place.”

Miguel San Claudio Santa Cruz, Manager, Archeonauta s.l., Spain.

• “In situ preservation means a practicable tool for underwater archaeological heritage (UCH) protection since, with current technology, some of the problems of preserving UCH directly derive from the danger of excavating (even properly) most types of historical items. ‘In situ’ protection permits an elapsed attitude with regard to the conservation of UCH that, perhaps, in a near future and progressively will be solved.”

Dr. Mariano J. Aznar-Gómez, Professor of Public International Law, Universitat Jaume I, Spain.

• “I deplore the concept of in situ preservation of underwater cultural heritage as being onerous, self-centred, far too late in time if English Heritage and UNESCO are serious, and self-destructive regarding the co-operation of amateur divers who have, after all, found the majority of historic wreck sites for themselves, saved the Mary Rose, and are the majority of Licence holders of Protected Wrecks [in the UK]. I consider it very ill-conceived.”

Richard Larn, OBE. Licensee of one site, two others in the past; member of the Mary Rose excavation team; President of IMASS; founder, owner & curator for 22 years of the Charlestown Shipwreck Centre, Cornwall.

• “If underwater archaeological sites are studied responsibly and protected in the same way, this in no way precludes future investigations; it allows for different kinds of research to be conducted; it preserves sites better than we could on land; and is exponentially more cost-effective. It is also an excellent way of preventing the raping.”

Anonymous.

• “Conservation is situ is a reasonable policy based on two main ideas: 1) that we cannot excavate everything we find; and 2) that we should leave something for future generations. The planet is not ours. It is not a passive policy, because it requires active protection and monitoring when governments or other institutions adopt it. Unfortunately, like so many other good ideas, it can be implemented in a stupid and dysfunctional way, as a prohibition tool, by incompetent, hypocritical, lazy, or just plain stupid bureaucrats (of which, as we all know so well, there will never be a shortage on the planet).”

Filipe Castro, Archaeologist.

• “If underwater preservation creates safe circumstances free of looting, drag-fishing and wood-boring shipworms it would be ideal. If not, rescue is preferable. I oppose treasure hunting for commercial reasons only, but it can not be completely ruled out, as considering for example the case of the Belitung wreck.”

Dr. Eva Grossmann, Israel.

 • “Some sites, in-situ preservation is obviously not working where degrading influences are so great, for example the Swash Channel site. Other sites for examples: the Admiral Gardener, which is buried under 15 metres of sand, in-situ preservation is working, so we need to distinguish between sites at risk and sites that are not.”

Robert Peacock, Msc Maritime Archaeology.

• “In situ management is the first (and perhaps the final) step in a management practice but it may move into an intrusive management process if determined from considering site significance and threats and implemented in accordance with a project design (as outlined in the UNESCO Convention). This process is the most efficient manner in managing a site for all stakeholders (those that value the site).”

Bill Jeffery, Maritime Archaeologist.

• “In situ preservation severely limits or completely prevents archaeological study and it does not allow knowledge to increase in any significant way. The major driver for in-situ preservation is actually budget constraints, which ought not to be the driver of policy – decide goals first, then acknowledge constraints that prevent it.”

Anonymous.

• “Leaving things down there that can rust, rot, or be dispersed by currents means knowledge lost forever. I would rather raise the ship and its contents, take it all apart piece by piece, record every single detail, and then bury the remains.”

Frank L. Fox, Birmingham, Alabama, independent naval researcher (particular interest in the history, ships, and ordnance of the 17th century).

• “As a policy it should be beneficial, but only when sites are actively protected from damage by mitigation and the law. When what is achieved is indistinguishable from neglect or abandonment then it’s a bad idea, doubly so when used as an excuse for doing nothing.”

Peter Holt, 3H Consulting Ltd, UK.

• “In situ preservation is an affront to historical application of archaeological processes to recover, preserve, and maintain historical prospective on an ever decreasing amount of historical knowledge available for mankind underwater.”

Ben Marich, Executive Director, International Marine Training Academy, Georgetown, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.

In Situ Preservation Resources

Archeomar Project: www.archeomar.it.

Brown, R., Bump, H., Muncher, D.A., ‘An In Situ Method for Determining Decomposition Rates of Shipwrecks’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 17.2 (1988), 143-45.

Cohn, A.B., ‘A Perspective on the Future of Underwater Archaeology’, Historical Archaeology 34.4 (2000), 18-21.

Dromgoole, S. (ed.), The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. National Perspectives in Light of the UNESCO Convention 2001 (Leiden, 2006).

Forrest, C., International Law and the Protection of Cultural Heritage (London, 2010).

González, A.W., O’Keefe, P., Williams, M., ‘The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: a Future for our Past?’ Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11.1 (2009), 54-69.

Grenier, R., Nutley, D. and Cochran, I., Underwater Cultural Heritage at Risk: Managing Natural and Human Impacts (ICOMOS, 2006), especially: Bernier, M-A., ‘To Dig or not to Dig? The Example of the Shipwreck of the Elizabeth and Mary’, 64-6; Broadwater, J.D., ‘The USS Monitor: In Situ Preservation and Recovery’, 78-81; Manders, M.R., ‘The In Situ Protection of a Dutch Colonial Vessel in Sri Lankan Waters’, 58-60; Manders, M.R., ‘The In Situ Protection of a 17th-Century Trading Vessel in the Netherlands’, 70-2; Viduka, A., ‘Managing Threats to Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites: the Yongala as a Case Study’, 61-3.

Greene, E.S., Leidwanger, J., Leventhal, R.M., and Daniels, B.I., ‘Mare Nostrum? Ethics and Archaeology in Mediterranean Waters’, American Journal of Archaeology 115 (2011), 311-19.

Kingsley, S., ‘Challenges of Maritime Archaeology: In Too Deep’. In T.F. King (ed.), A Companion to Cultural Resource Management (Oxford, 2011), 223-44.

Manders, M., ‘In Situ Preservation: ‘the Preferred Option’, Museum International (2008), 31-41.

Maarleveld, Th., Guérin, U. and Egger (eds.), Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Rules of the UNESCO 2001 Convention: a Manual (UNESCO, 2011).

O’Keefe, P., Shipwrecked Heritage: a Commentary on the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage (Leicester, 2002).

O’Keefe, P., ‘The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: a Future for our Past? The Implementation of the 2001 Underwater Convention’, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11.1 (2009), 58-60.

Olsson, A., ‘Some Reflections of Underwater Cultural Heritage Management’, MACHU Report 2 (2009), 48-9.

Ransley, J., ‘Rigorous Reasoning, Reflexive Research and the Space for ‘Alternative Archaeologies’. Questions for Maritime Archaeological Heritage Management’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 36.2 (2007), 221-37.

Richards, V., Godfrey, I., Blanchette, R., Held, B., Gregory, D. and Reed, E., ‘In-situ Monitoring and Stabilisation of the James Matthews Shipwreck Site’, Proceedings of the 10th ICOM Group on Wet Organic Archaeological Materials Conference (2009).

Stemm, G. and Kingsley, S., eds., Oceans Odyssey 2. Underwater Heritage Management & Deep-Sea Shipwrecks in the English Channel & Atlantic Ocean (Oxford, 2011, 1-26): various papers on ‘Underwater Cultural Heritage & UNESCO in New Orleans’.

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White, C., ‘Too Many Preserved Ships Threaten the Heritage’. In M. Bound (ed.), The Archaeology of the Ships of War (Oswestry, 1994), 179-83.

Vadi, V.S., ‘Investing in Culture: Underwater Cultural Heritage and International Investment Law’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 42 (2009), 853-904.

Williams, M., ‘The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: a Future for our Past? Towards a Two-speed Implementation?’, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11.1 (2009), 60-67.

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Categories: Editorials | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The Sunken Past: Shipwrecks Lost in Translation

  1. Mariano Aznar

    Thank you for the work, Sean.
    Let me simply said one thing about this sentence of the blog that I quote and cannot share: “…the UNESCO Convention has been disproportionately directed by bureaucrats and lawyers, instead of by the protagonists of underwater archaeology.”
    Do not forget that the ‘in situ’ option was introduced in the Convention not as a “new principle” but as the direct result of an archaeological option unanimously adopted BY the archaeology scientific community (and not “bureaucrats and lawyers”) in the ICOMOS Sofia Charter of 1996 and, then, translated in legal terms by those bureaucrats and lawyers into the 2001 Convention.
    Under my point of view, that endorsement of a non-legal text (the Sofia Charter) in a hard law text (as an annex to the UNESCO Convention, forming “an integral part of it” under Art. 33) has been one a landmark in diplomatic negotiations.

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