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What is Underwater Cultural Heritage?

The UNESCO . 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural . Heritage (UCH). Underwater. cultural . heritage. . encompasses. :. 3 Million ancient shipwrecks (. Titanic, Mary Rose, Vasa.

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What is Underwater Cultural Heritage?

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What is Underwater Cultural Heritage?

The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH)Slide2

Underwater cultural heritage

encompasses:3 Million ancient shipwrecks (Titanic, Mary Rose, Vasa)Hundreds of sunken cities (150 in the Mediterranean alone)

For 90% of human history, sea levels were much lower, leaving many submerged prehistoric landscapes with traces of human development (Doggerland, Black Sea)Prehistoric paintings, sacrificial sites, burials in flooded caves

Remains of ancient fishing installations and ports

© J.








, IsraëlSlide3


Millions of wrecks exist spanning thousands of years of historyThey tell the stories of historic connections between distant civilizationsThey preserve collections of artefacts different from those found on land They present the opportunity to learn about distinct moments in time, as well as the broader themes of world history











, IsraëlSlide4

Sunken Cities

Hundreds worldwideMany ancient cities now lie underwater due to changing sea levels, shifting landmasses, and human activities such as the building of damsUnderwater cities tell a different story from those on land, as they have been protected from many dangers, such as construction projects and expanding cities© E. Khalil\UNESCO Ruins

of the Pharos Lighthouse, Alexandria, EgyptSlide5

Submerged landscapes and other sites

Many underwater sites contain evidence of past civilizationsMany prehistoric landscapes are now submerged, and preserve the memory of early human civilizationMany caves containing burials have since been floodedLakes and other bodies of water were often considered sacred sites, and can contain traces of ancient religious practices © A.

Martos Lopez\UNESCO Cenote, MexicoSlide6

The Potentials of Underwater Cultural HeritageSlide7


Sites of catastrophic submersion are a ‘time-capsule’ snapshot of every day life in the pastUnderwater sites conserve biological material particularly wellSubmerged sites are rich and varied, yet little explored

© Mary Rose Trust, UKSlide8

Tourism and Urban

DevelopmentFor every $1 that a visitor spends at a heritage site, they may spend up to $12 in surrounding businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, etc.Fisheries often employ less people in coastal areas than tourism (hotels, food sales, transport, guides) 37% of all tourism is culture relatedDiving tourists spend more money and stay longer.

Museums can help demonstrate a region’s cultural value

© Huang, Dejian, Baiheliang Museum

© H. Dejian, Baiheliang

Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum ©UNESCO

© Mary Rose MuseumSlide9

Public Interest and Education

Heritage belongs to all humanityResponsible public access is encouraged by the 2001 ConventionUCH provides information on maritime traditions and heritageStrong community importance, especially in coastal areasMaritime heritage demonstrates connections with other regions of the world and promotes unity through shared heritage among nations

© Ships of Discovery, Snorkeler viewing the landing gear of a TBM AvengerSlide10

Threats to Underwater Cultural HeritageSlide11

Pillaging and Commercial Exploitation

Often the most significant sites are targetedOver 700,000 artefacts have been taken from a single siteThese activities destroy archaeological and historical contexts on a massive scaleLack of proper (costly) conservation damages artefactsThere are no ‘good’ treasure-hunters© Ministry of Culture, Spain, Coins from the pillaged Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes wreck (2007)

© Maksaens Denis/UNESCO. Pillager attempting to recover wood from a wreck in HaitiSlide12

Industrial Impact

Industrial works can seriously damage submerged heritage sitesThe 2001 Convention does not request the prohibition of such works, only mitigation when heritage is threatenedCooperation between archaeologists and the industry can be beneficial for bothDamaging impacts can come from:Tourist promenadesOil drilling, pipeline or other infrasturcture constructionMetro and auto-route crossing in channels or with bridgesRecovery of gravel and sand Building of artificial islandsClimate change, coastal erosion, pollutionTrawlingSlide13

Underdevelopment of Underwater Archaeology

Many countries still lack underwater archaeologists and expertsCommercial salvagers and treasure-hunters are often used in place of archaeologists, which leads to the damage and destruction of important sitesThe Rules in the Annex to the 2001 Convention provide important guidelines for heritage management, but they are often not followed© C. Grondin, Research in Vanikoro.Slide14

The Challenges for Underwater Cultural HeritageSlide15

Legal protection

for underwater cultural heritage can be achieved through:Articles 149 and 303 of UNCLOSThe UNESCO 2001 Convention National implementation lawsOperational protection and research of underwater heritage requires:Building local research and protection capacityLocating and creating inventories of sitesEnsuring effective site protection and monitoringPublic awareness and access requires:

Making sites visible and accessible, either in situ, in museums or virtually



public of the importance and value of underwater cultural heritage


© Ministry of Culture,







UNESCO Contact:

Ulrike Guérin, UNESCOConvention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001)7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP FranceTel: + 33 1 45 68 44 06Email: u.guerin@unesco.org Web: www.unesco.org/en/underwater-cultural-heritage