Underwater archeology reaches new depths

Ancient artifacts and secret monuments from centuries ago are buried deep at the bottom of the seabed. Shipwrecks and sunken cargoes found within various oceans around the world. Whether they are the remnants of fallen cities or contain treasures from former kingdoms, the mystery of underwater archeology piques the interests of scientists, government officials and commercial or leisure divers.

Over the years, they also become the object of archaeological fascination and the target of so-called “black archaeologists”, or treasure-hunters that rob the site in search of any items they can sell. Besides, any interference of such amateur archeologists can potentially disrupt and destroy the historic integrity of the settlement and threaten its very existence.

Under the UNESCO’s Norway-funded project on “Safeguarding the Underwater Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific,” the Regional Advanced training Course on In Situ Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage took place over a span of eight days in October, beginning with classroom instruction in the mornings and on-site diving in the afternoons. Heavy emphasis was placed on the five points of In Situ: significance, threats, reasons for preservation, choice of technique, and monitor.

“This [In Situ Preservation] is one of the main subjects for the UNESCO Convention 2001. It’s not just only about leaving sites on the seabed; it’s about managing them as well, protecting them to avoid deterioration of the sites. People should understand if they should do it, how they should do it, why they should do it,” explained In Situ course trainer, Martijn Manders and representative of the International Committee on Underwater Cultural Heritage of ICOMOS . “If you say ‘we leave them In Situ’, it does not mean we abandon them. But it means we consider them to be important, of high significance. And we want to keep them for specific purposes and these purposes can be for scientific reasons because you don’t have the capacity yet or the money yet to excavate, and you just need a little bit more time to plan all your work,” said Mr. Manders.

In Situ preservation is a relatively new development in underwater archaeology and it is the preservation of underwater cultural heritage in its original location. It is also recommended as the first choice to leave archaeological sites as undamaged as possible.

David Gregory, co-trainer and representative from the National Museum of Denmark, offered another perspective. “There’s very little information for what that actually means, and that makes it very difficult to do anything. So over time, they are going to corrode and disappear. Even though we are trying to preserve them In Situ, we have to accept that we can’t slow down the process of time and these things are going to disappear some time.”

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2001, as a means to complement the 1982 UN Law of the Seas, which failed to mention shipwrecks. However, it was not ratified until 2009 and is still not ratified by the UK, France, Philippines, Russia, China or the US.

“A big problem is that we don’t have a budget big enough to do many underwater archaeological projects or any sort of research underwater because it’s expensive,” said Ligaya Lacsina, Museum Researcher from the National Museum of Philippines.

Ms. Lacsina is one of the 15 participants from nine countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand) that took part at the recent training. This was implemented in collaboration with the Underwater Archaeology Division of Thailand at the Khao Laem Ya, Moo Koh Samet National Park, Rayong Province, Thailand.

Earlier the foundation courses were organized also in Thailand to give participants a basic understanding of underwater cultural heritage management. The training began in 2009 and specialized field school took place in 2010. This year, financial support from the donor government of Norway ended with the final course on In Situ Preservation in October 2011.

The objective of the foundation courses is to train maritime archaeologists, conservators and maritime heritage officers together from around the Asia-Pacific. A Training Manual for the Foundation Course will be published for the continuing use of the Regional Field Training Centre established in Chanthaburi, Thailand, and for use or adaptation by other UNESCO-sponsored training programmes elsewhere in the world.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage is an important legal instrument for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. UNESCO’s role in the protection of the underwater cultural heritage focuses on improving the legal protection of underwater cultural heritage, building capacity in underwater archaeology, and raising awareness of underwater cultural heritage among the public.

Written by: Emily Chu, UNESCO Bangkok


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