So, Who Cares About Underwater Cultural Heritage? – By Dr. John BroadwaterMay 19, 2009
Back in the 1970s, when I first became interested in protecting shipwrecks, the picture was pretty bleak. In the United States, there was no national legislation to protect shipwrecks or other submerged archaeological sites. Among the very few states with protective legislation, most imposed few—if any—archaeological requirements, and the bulk of the recovered cultural material was given to the salvors. Frequently, salvors turned to the Admiralty courts where they were usually designated “salvor in possession,” often being given complete control of the site and its contents.
Back in the day, few people were even aware of “underwater archaeology,” but almost everyone knew about treasure hunting. The term conjured up images of Spanish gold and silver spilling out of rotting hulks on the seabed, being “rescued” from the perils of the sea by brave, adventurous explorers who risked their lives in hopes of “finding the mother lode.” Even when legitimate underwater archaeology projects came to the public’s attention, most people assumed that archaeology and treasure hunting was the same thing. Other factors, too, were destroying important sites, including souvenir collecting, dredging, construction projects, and erosion.
Now, more than 30 years later, do you think the situation has improved? Recently I clicked to the Discovery Channel, hoping for a program on underwater archaeology, but instead found “Treasure Quest,” an entire series of new programs about brave, adventurous explorers seeking their fortune among the deepwater shipwrecks that had been, until very recently, protected by their inaccessibility from discovery and exploitation.
So… who really cares about underwater cultural heritage, and what are they doing to protect these unique resources for future generations?
Well, from my point of view: (a) quite a few people care, and (b) quite a lot has been done to protect and preserve our collective maritime heritage and to disseminate information about that heritage to a global audience. Here are several examples that give me encouragement for the future:
First of all, national and regional protective legislation is now more prevalent and more restrictive. Many of these laws apply to large dredging and construction projects as well as to salvage. Recent improvements in protective legislation involve more than just words. More frequently than before, these laws are being enforced and salvors are being required to meet archaeological standards. Also, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage entered into force in 2009, providing a global structure and best-practices guidelines. Even though relatively few countries have ratified the Convention so far, many others have indicated that they will adhere to the Convention’s Annex Rules to the fullest extent practicable.
We still have a long way to go, legislation-wise, but we’re far better off than before. In fact, commercial salvors are beginning to accept these new restrictions and, ironically, many have found that their artifacts sell at higher prices when they are accompanied by a detailed provenance and site history. Odyssey Marine Enterprises, featured on the “Treasure Quest” series, invested millions of dollars in state-of-the-art robotics and electronics so they could document and excavate deepwater shipwrecks to very high standards. Other salvors, too, seem to be moving in that direction. (All expect to retain the right to sell the recovered material, however, which is a direct violation of the UNESCO Convention’s Annex Rules. Oh well, at least more of the site information is being recorded and, in a very few cases, published.)
A final topic I’m very excited about is outreach. In the past, archaeologists were often too busy digging and publishing in scholarly journals to reach out to the wider public. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. Most archaeologists now consider public education and outreach to be part of their jobs, and recent technological advances have made it much easier for them to share their findings.
For instance, if you’re reading this blog, you’re experiencing one of the most incredible means of information exchange the world has ever seen: the Internet. Through the World Wide Web, archaeologists are explaining why they do what they do and why it is important: the need to excavate archaeological sites in a systematic, scientific manner in order to extract valid information, and the public benefits to be reaped when this information—along with the physical objects recovered—remain in the public domain, accessible to everyone. They are sharing their research, too.
The Museum of Underwater Archaeology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maritime Heritage Program, and many others are facilitating the process of sharing our maritime past with the world through a variety of media and techniques. We can read about what others are doing, see images of their excavations and artifacts, even watch videos of the work in progress; we can take school children on virtual tours of those sites, where they can speak directly to the archaeologists and ask questions. To me this is the perfect way to share our passion for history and archaeology. After all, what archaeologist doesn’t love to spin a good yarn!
Dr. John D. Broadwater is the Chief Archaeologist at the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). During his career he headed the development of NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and served as Sanctuary Manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. He was also Virginia’s first State Underwater Archaeologist. He was a member of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology and other advisory boards and is a Fellow of The Explorers Club. He has published a variety of technical and popular articles and contributed to several archaeological books and encyclopedias. He has a master’s degree in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, and a Ph.D. in Maritime Studies from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
* The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.