Asia-Pacific Underwater Cultural Heritage – By Dr. Mark Staniforth

April 12, 2011

I was fortunate enough to attend a UNESCO regional meeting on Underwater Cultural Heritage held in the magnificent Istanbul Archaeology Museum in October 2010. Of the eighteen nations from the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea region that were formally represented, no less than fourteen (or nearly 80%) have ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001). Another part of the world where there has been a very significant level of ratification has been Latin America and the Caribbean and one really important consequence of this has been the decline in official, state-supported, treasure hunting activities in these areas. On the other hand there are large areas of the world where very few countries have ratified the Convention – Northern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and, sadly, my own region in Asia and the Pacific. Of the forty-eight nations included in the UNESCO region of Asia and the Pacific, for example, only two countries have ratified the Convention – Cambodia and Iran (or less than 5% of the countries in the region). There are, of course, many complex geo-political reasons why individual nations, or indeed whole regions, have failed to ratify this Convention in the nearly ten years since it was passed by UNESCO in late 2001. Some countries (like Australia) make much of the difficulties associated with federal nations trying to bring state and federal legislation into line with the provisions of the Convention and other countries claim to have issues with sovereignty and flagged vessels. I remain unconvinced by this kind of rhetoric and suspect that many countries are simply unwilling to expend funds in what is seen to be a relatively ‘unimportant’ area.

It is always worth reflecting on what governments are willing to expend, sometimes considerable amounts of, money on and why. Australia, despite a proud record of nearly 40 years of involvement in maritime archaeology, in just over a year managed to spend the equivalent of more than a decade of recurrent funding for the Federal Historic Shipwrecks Program (or $4.5 million) on finding two World War 2 shipwrecks (HMAS Sydney and the Hospital ship Centaur) in very deep water. Why? Apparently it was largely a combination of public (read voter) pressure and media attention (read photo opportunities) which should come as no real surprise to anyone who has been involved in maritime archaeology for any length of time. The money is very clearly there but as maritime archaeologists we need to be more effective at convincing the politicians and senior bureaucrats of the importance of underwater cultural heritage.

Maritime archaeology is slow, painstaking and time consuming – in the modern world of ten second sound bites and fifteen minutes of fame, treasure hunters can produce ‘the goods’ relatively quickly. We know this because we have been fighting a difficult, and sometimes losing, battle with the treasure hunters for the better part of four decades. Australia, like the US, Germany and South Africa just to name a few, has been a net exporter of treasure hunters for decades. Australian treasure hunters head overseas to do things that they cannot do at home because Australia has had reasonably effective underwater cultural heritage legislation since 1976. Sadly, a significant part of the world’s underwater cultural heritage in the Asia-Pacific region is currently endangered and on the verge of permanent destruction due to effects arising from a rapidly changing world. Treasure hunting and underwater looting, as well as uncontrolled dive tourism, are amongst the most immediate dangers threatening some of the most significant underwater cultural heritage sites in the world.

The reasons for the recent controversy in the US over the planned exhibition Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds due to open in 2012 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C is a case in point. The exhibition is based on material raised by a German treasure hunting company during the 1990s from a 10th century, possibly Arab, vessel under an agreement with the government of Indonesia. Indonesia, like nearly all of the nations in the Asia-Pacific region, has not ratified the UNESCO Convention, so there is no particular reason why this kind of activity will not continue to occur thus providing the next generation of maritime archaeologists with the chance to write indignant letters of complaint to large museums with dubious ethical records – unfortunately the Smithsonian is by no means alone in this respect.

Enough of the difficulties, what is happening to change this situation? Some individual countries have made great progress in protecting and investigating the underwater cultural heritage that lies within their own jurisdiction – Thailand, for example. In an article in Asiaweek magazine nearly twenty years ago, Thailand was described as being “at the forefront of maritime archaeology in Southeast Asia” (Asiaweek 6 March 1992) and it remains very much so today. In recent years, UNESCO has initiated a program of six-week long ‘Foundation’ courses in maritime archaeology taught in Chantaburi, Thailand which have seen dozens of government archaeologists and administrators from countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region trained in the basics of maritime archaeology. This builds on a long-standing involvement by SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology and others in training and teaching maritime archaeology in the Asia-Pacific region and it provides the basis for change in the way in which underwater cultural heritage is dealt with in the region.

Engagement, collaboration and cooperation is, of course, the key as Peggy Leshikar-Denton pointed out in the recent special issue of the Journal of Maritime Archaeology (Dec 2010). Here I return to Turkey where just one of the results of 50 years of involvement and activity in Turkey by Professor George Bass and the INA has been the flourishing of the field of maritime archaeology. While Turkey has yet to ratify the UNESCO Convention (2001), eight Turkish universities teach or research in the field of maritime archaeology and a number of Turkish maritime archaeologists are employed in the highly impressive excavations of Byzantine vessels at Yenikapi in Istanbul. Some of this new generation of Turkish maritime archaeologists studied at Texas A & M University or were involved through the underwater excavations based at Bodrum.

Later this year the Inaugural Asian Academy for Heritage Management (AAHM) Asia-Pacific regional conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage will take place in Manila in the Philippines from 8 to 12 November 2011. This will provide an opportunity engage with and build collaborations with maritime archaeologists and underwater cultural heritage managers as well as to provide a forum for discussion and the exchange of ideas, approaches and the latest research about underwater cultural heritage in the Asia-Pacific region. This conference will provide an opportunity to enter into a dialogue about the nature, extent and meanings of underwater cultural heritage as well as to exchange and disseminate information about underwater cultural heritage and underwater/maritime archaeology from the countries of Asia and all of the countries surrounding the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It will be another step along the way and, on behalf of the Conference Organising Committee, I invite you to see the Conference website at:


Adjunct Associate Professor Mark Staniforth has broad experience in historical archaeology, maritime archaeology, museums and heritage studies in a career that spans more than thirty years. Mark was the Convenor of the Maritime Archaeology Program (MAP) in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University for 14 years (1997-2010) where he taught topics in undergraduate and postgraduate maritime archaeology and underwater cultural heritage management. Mark was the State government maritime archaeologist for the Victoria Archaeological Survey in Victoria (1982-1987) and curator of maritime archaeology at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney (1987-1993). Mark is currently Chair of the Scientific Committee for the Asian Academy for Heritage Management (AAHM) Inaugural Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage to be held in Manila from 8 to 12 Nov 2011.

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


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