The Historic Environment: Shared Heritage and Joint Responsibilities? – By Ian Oxley

November 16, 2010

Throughout a thirty-year career in maritime archaeology, a particular hobby-horse of mine has been an element of good practice management that involves jointly sharing heritage responsibilities, as well as benefits and outcomes.

At a basic level, I think that much maritime and underwater heritage is inherently multi-national, a fundamental property opens up great opportunities for co-operative investigation and use, overriding present day boundaries.  It is derived from mobile carriers (ships and boats) travelling between many locations, involving and impacting on many lives, gathering stories so that a rich heritage resource can be re-told now and in the future.

The contributory elements that make up sites that result from this activity can be investigated and presented for education, research and amenity. Making all this happen effectively would seem to be best delivered by a managed contribution from all interested parties, requiring sharing various elements at a range of levels – experience, expertise, knowledge, data, and international, national, and local. It also needs to be effective because archaeological resources are unique, no two sites are the same, and any investigation should be carefully planned so that the maximum of beneficial return is gained with the minimum of impact. This is the joint responsibility bit because the archaeological heritage is a legacy from the past for the future. I hope to show a few examples of what I mean here.

The phrase, “Shared Heritage: Joint Responsibility”, was the title of a seminar the University of Wolverhampton and English Heritage supported to encourage this approach in relation to British warship wrecks located outside United Kingdom waters. Expert speakers came from Florida, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, with commonalities of engaging stakeholders, encouraging access, exchanging expertise, whilst respecting national interests and intricacies of salvage legislation. The proceedings of the seminar are available from www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/management-of-british-warship-wrecks-overseas

Another good example, for me, of sharing responsibilities is the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (ACUA)(www.acuaonline.org), an independent non-profit organization representing professionals in academia, private industry, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. The ACUA has been at the forefront of underwater archaeology for more than 45 years, beginning as the Council on Underwater Archaeology in 1959. It serves as an international advisory body on issues relating to underwater archaeology, conservation, and underwater cultural heritage management, working to educate scholars, governments, sport divers, and the general public about underwater archaeology and the preservation of submerged resources.

It is also clear that the historic environment (comprising submerged and often buried prehistoric landscape areas and elements, together with archaeological sites and remains of coastal activities dating from all eras of history) is so inextricably embedded in the natural environment – if anything now can be considered completely natural anymore? Therefore, in underwater archaeology, we have a well-developed sector which studies the ways in which chemical, biological, physical factors have affected our heritage, how these things have changed and/or mixed up the clues we have about stories from the past? We need to know these things so that we can interpret all the clues I mentioned earlier effectively. Just as importantly, we need to know how present-day influences, whether natural or human, should be taken into account so that we can manage the heritage effectively now. All of these elements can be better approached by bringing in the necessary areas of expertise, however diverse.

In English Heritage, where I work, these ideas are presented as “heritage conservation”, which can be defined as “managing change.”  The organization is the United Kingdom Government’s statutory adviser on all aspects of cultural heritage including the English area of the territorial seabed, and works in partnership with central government departments, local authorities, voluntary bodies and the private sector within the framework of a set of Conservation Principles (www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/advice/conservation-principles ):

• The historic environment is a shared resource;
• Everyone should be able to participate in sustaining the historic environment;
• Understanding the significance of places is vital;
• Significant places should be managed to sustain their values;
• Decisions about change must be reasonable, transparent and consistent;
• Documenting and learning from decisions is essential.

A participatory aspiration also underpins the UNESCO Convention on The Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/themes/underwater-cultural-heritage )which advocates the sharing of knowledge and experience, encouraging countries that have a verifiable link to a particular site to co-operate in its future management. Clearly, this is an important element for archaeological sites that lie in international waters where no single country has jurisdiction or responsibility.

If past experience is anything to go by, the material remains that make up our common heritage are one of the few things that will survive, albeit always modified or even added to, in this rapidly changing world. It should be cherished and be used economically, so that it can be managed for the benefit of all. To achieve this I believe we all should share responsibilities, as well as those benefits.

Ian Oxley, BSc MSc FSA Scot FSA London MIFA
After beginning his archaeological career as a digger in the late Seventies, Ian Oxley learnt to dive and joined the Mary Rose project as diving Finds Assistant. Following the excavation and recovery of that Tudor warship he specialized in shipwreck environmental archaeology, progressing to become the Mary Rose Trust’s Archaeological Scientist. He has held many voluntary offices in societies such as the Institute of Field Archaeologists and helped develop the Nautical Archaeology Society Training Programme. Moving to St Andrews in 1988 to spend ten years with the Archaeological Diving Unit, progressing to Deputy Director, he also set up and directed the voluntary Maritime Fife project, which included marine GIS and inventory development. After embarking on research into the management of historic shipwreck sites in Scotland at Heriot-Watt University, he carried out shipwreck inventory enhancement for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. He then joined Historic Scotland’s an Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments before moving to English Heritage as Head of Maritime Archaeology in 2002.

* The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.



  1. Good, well thought-out article Ian – I found myself nodding (with approval, not boredom 😉 as I read it.

  2. Now i know which path to go for my masters – marine archaeology. Thanks Kimberly

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