Technology has progressed rapidly over recent decades, making it easier to find and exploit resources located underwater. The sea once protected underwater cultural heritage through concealment and inaccessibility, but this protection has been drastically eroded. As a result mankind’s shared submerged heritage is facing a number of threats, not least from the lucrative trade that has arisen around the looting of underwater heritage.
In response to these growing threats, and because of an increasing awareness of the importance of the underwater cultural heritage, in 2001 the UNESCO General Conference adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (often referred to simply as the ‘UNESCO Convention’ by maritime archaeologists). The Convention is the first multilateral treaty that has the protection of underwater cultural heritage as its central purpose.
The main principles of the Convention are listed in Article 2 and include:
- 1. This Convention aims to ensure and strengthen the protection of underwater cultural heritage.
- 2. States Parties shall cooperate in the protection of underwater cultural heritage.
- 3. States Parties shall preserve underwater cultural heritage for the benefit of humanity in conformity with the provisions of this Convention.
- 5. The preservation in situ of underwater cultural heritage shall be considered as the first option before allowing or engaging in any activities directed at this heritage.
- 7. Underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited.
The Convention does not seek to regulate ownership of the underwater cultural heritage.
The Definition of Underwater Cultural Heritage
The Definition of Underwater Cultural Heritage
The Convention essentially provides a blanket protection for underwater cultural heritage. Underwater cultural heritage is defined broadly, and encompasses all traces of human existence that have been submerged for at least 100 years. The definition is contained in Article 1 of the Convention:
1. (a) “Underwater cultural heritage” means all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years such as:
(i) sites, structures, buildings, artefacts and human remains, together with their archaeological and natural context;
(ii) vessels, aircraft, other vehicles or any part thereof, their cargo or other contents, together with their archaeological and natural context; and
(iii) objects of prehistoric character.
The definition specifically includes traces like structures and prehistoric objects. These are sometimes ignored in national protection regimes, which often focus solely on shipwrecks. Also included is the environment that the heritage is located in, as this can provide archaeologists with vital information and is often just as important as the ‘traces’ themselves.
Despite being broad, the definition is still just a minimum requirement, and States Parties may widen it in their jurisdiction further if they wish. An even broader definition could include traces submerged for less than 100 years for example, palaeoecological evidence, or landscapes with no physical human traces, but which may have held significance to peoples in the past.
The Convention uses a number of different methods to protect underwater cultural heritage. Some of these utilise the maritime zones delineated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
These include a state cooperation scheme for reporting and protecting underwater cultural heritage beyond the territorial sea, as well as means such as the closure of ports, the imposition of sanctions and the seizure of material. Taken together these measures are intended to prevent looting by regulating the activities directed at underwater cultural heritage, increasing the logistical costs of acting contrary to the Convention, and removing the economic benefits of such actions. This system affords one of the main advantages of the Convention to ratifying states, a method of protecting underwater cultural heritage located beyond the normal boundaries of exclusive state jurisdiction.
Just as significant is the duty placed upon states to use the best practicable means at their disposal to prevent or mitigate activates that incidentally affect underwater cultural heritage. These activities could include oil (and other resource) extraction, trawling and development. They arguably pose an even greater threat to underwater cultural heritage than looting, but unlike looting, they are legitimate and necessary. The Convention therefore seeks to balance these interests by not preventing them outright, but still limiting the damage they do to underwater cultural heritage.
States also have to cooperate in capacity building and information, technology and expertise sharing. Capacity building includes training underwater archaeologists and establishing a national competent authority responsible for the protection, conservation and management of underwater cultural heritage. Increasing the ability of States Parties to manage and engage with their underwater cultural heritage is essential for its ultimate protection.
The Convention also attempts to raise public awareness through education and the promotion of public access to underwater cultural heritage. Access is encouraged to both underwater cultural heritage located in situ, and underwater cultural heritage that has been recovered (whether lawfully or illicitly). Raising public awareness will increase the desire to protect underwater cultural heritage. In turn this could ensure a greater political will to both more widely ratify, and properly implement the Convention.
The principle of cooperation permeates all of the above protection measures and goes to the heart of the Convention. It ensures that the protection of the underwater cultural heritage is mutual effort that stimulates mutual trust. This provides a much healthier basis for heritage protection than the unilateral and often guarded and nationalistic approach that went before.
Finally, the Convention’s Annex contains 36 Rules based on the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) 1996 Charter on the Protection and Management of Underwater Cultural Heritage which are to be applied to activities directed at underwater cultural heritage. These ‘Rules’ are the most widely recognised international standard of underwater archaeological best practice and their use will ensure consistency in archaeological practice worldwide.
The 2001 Convention entered into force on 02 January 2009, 3 months after the 20th state – Barbados – deposited its instrument of ratification. It has gathered momentum since then, with 47 states having now ratified or accepted it. Notably February 2013 saw ratification by France, a powerful maritime nation that was one of a number of significant ‘flag’ states that did not support the final text of the Convention in 2001. Some other states that still feel they cannot ratify the Convention have nevertheless agreed to adhere to the Rules of the Annex, the UK being one such example. As the number of ratifications increases, the effectiveness of the Convention’s protection measures will also increase, safeguarding the underwater cultural heritage for future generations.
Date of Ratification/Acceptance
Antigua and Barbuda
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Iran (Islamic Republic of)
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
Full text of 2001 Convention
UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage Page
List of States Parties
More information on UNCLOS
Full text of UNCLOS
ICOMOS 1996 Charter on the Protection and Management of Underwater Cultural Heritage
Dromgoole, S. (ed.) (2006). The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: National Perspectives in Light of the UNESCO Convention 2001. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers
Dromgoole, S. (2013). Underwater Cultural Heritage and International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Forrest, C. (2010). International Law and the Protection of Cultural Heritage. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge
Garabello, R. & Scovazzi, T. (eds.) (2003). The Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage: Before and After the 2001 UNESCO Convention. . Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers
O'Keefe, P.J. (2002). Shipwrecked Heritage: A Commentary on the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage. Leicester: Institute of Art and Law
Carducci, G. (2002). New Developments in the Law of the Sea: The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. The American Journal of International Law, 96(2): 419-434
Dromgoole, S. (2003). 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, 18(1): 59-108
Dromgoole, S. (2013). Reflections on the position of the major maritime powers with respect to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001. Marine Policy, 38: 116–123
Evans, A.M., Russell, M.A. & Leshikar-Denton, M.E. (2010). Local Resources, Global Heritage: An Introduction to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 5: 79-83
Forrest, C. (2002). A new international regime for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. International & Comparative Law Quarterly, 51(3): 511-554
Leshikar-Denton, M.E. (2010). Cooperation is the Key: We Can Protect the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 5: 85-95
Maarleveld, T.J. (2008). How and Why will Underwater Cultural Heritage Benefit from the 2001 Convention? Museum International, 60(4): 50-62
Documents available online
Grenier, R., Nutley, D. & Cochran, I. (eds.) (2006). Heritage at Risk: Special Edition. Underwater Cultural Heritage at Risk: Managing Natural and Human Impacts. ICOMOS. Availbale at: http://www.icomos.org/en/get-involved/inform-us/heritage-alert/heritage-at-risk-reports/116-english-categories/resources/publications/215-heritage-at-risk-special-edition-2006-underwater-cultural-heritage
Henderson, G. & Viduka, A. (eds.) (2014). Towards Ratification: Papers from the 2013 AIMA Conference Workshop. Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/pdf/UCH_AIMA_2013.pdf
Maarleveld, T.J., Guerin, U. & Egger, B. (2011). UNESCO Manual for Activities directed at Underwater Cultural Heritage: A Guide on the Rules annexed to the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Paris: UNESCO - Secretariat of the 2001 Convention. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/culture/en/underwater/pdf/UCH-Manual.pdf
UK UNESCO 2001 Convention Review Group (2014) The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001: An Impact Review for the United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.unesco.org.uk/convention_on_the_protection_of_the_underwater_cultural_heritage_(2001)
Yorke, R. (ed.) (2006). The UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage: Proceedings Of The Burlington House Seminar October 2005. Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee. Available at: http://www.gc.noaa.gov/documents/gcil_heritage2_burlington.pdf
Yorke, R. (ed.) (2011). Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage in International Waters Adjacent to the UK: Proceedings of the JNAPC 21st Anniversary Seminar, Burlington House, November 2010. Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee. Available at: http://www.jnapc.org.uk/UNESCO-Seminar-2010-final.pdf