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Underwater maritime heritage: disseminating the treasure map

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Today, it is estimated that three million undiscovered shipwrecks and ruins continue to lie at the bottom of the oceans.

Currently, the EMODNet Human Activities portal provides two datasets concerning underwater cultural heritage:

  1. The first covers Submerged prehistoric archaeology sites and landscapes in Northern and Western Europe. Information on the age (from Paleolitic to Bronze age) and the type of sites  is provided for each “point”. The Source is a pan-European scientific Project called SPLASHCOS
  1. The second concerns a set of ancient/antique wrecks, mostly shipwrecks, lost in the North Sea. Information is provided on the type of ship and its age. The source is a EU funded scientific Project called MACHU involving seven member States. Another new dataset will soon be added concerning antique shipwrecks (Roman and Greek periods) in the Mediterranean (The Oxford Roman Economy project)

A wider wrecks database is available through the EMODnet Bathymetry portal, covering a wide range of wrecks, most of which are shipwrecks, but also planes and diverse artifacts. But this dataset does not distinguish wrecks of heritage value, e.g of historical value, from basic objects lost at sea.

Data owners (scientific institutes,governmental agencies or private associations) who accepted to have their maps available through the Human Activities portal were unanimous in refusing to provide the precise coordinates of sites in the aim of ensuring we will not disseminate ”the treasure map”, considering the risk of looting, who can seriously degrade or destroy both the historic and commercial value of submerged sites. That is why coordinates of underwater cultural sites mapped on EMODnet portals are not downloadable.

A key challenge for a better coverage of EU underwater cultural heritage sites is to dispel the misgivings of data owners by offering them strong guarantee on the non dissemination of the geographic coordinates of sites.

A new approach in mapping underwater cultural heritage sites is to move from points, plotting precisely the sites or wrecks, to polygons delimiting protected areas. The 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage provides tools for preserving submerged heritage.  Its legal framework stems from two distinct sections of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), providing that “All objects of an archaeological and historical nature found in the Area shall be preserved or disposed of for the benefit of mankind as a whole, particular regard being paid to the preferential rights of the State or country of origin, or the State of cultural origin, or the State of historical and archaeological origin.” And that States have the duty to protect objects of an archaeological and historical nature found at sea and shall cooperate for this purpose.” These commitments concern in particular the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Continental shelf and Area. Some Members States are implementing the delimitation on protected areas, with diving prohibition or restriction.

The cultural heritage dataset will integrate the different type of protected areas in the future.

Another innovative approach is to protect underwater heritage by organising its economic valorisation. The EUMFF funded project Western Black Sea Underwater Tours is an interesting example of valorisation and protection through diving tourism. Its specific objectives are :

  1. Encouraging the diversification of provision of cultural European sustainable touristic products and services, by developing a trans-national touristic product out of the underwater cultural patrimony of the Black Sea.
  1. Improving, preserving and promoting the underwater cultural patrimony on the West side of the Black Sea.
  1. Promoting the trans-national cooperation between different stakeholders in the field of the underwater cultural patrimony.

The information and views set out in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission. Neither the European Commission nor any person acting on the European Commission's behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information therein.

December 11th, 2018 | Written by

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