Monday, March 23, 2009

Safeguarding the Underwater Cultural Heritage

III. century wreck, Italy
© UNESCO/E. Trainito

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted in 2001, entered into force on 2 January 2009 after being ratified
by 20 nations. It enables States Parties to better protect their submerged archaeological heritage from being damaged, looted or scattered away. It provides guidance for underwater archaeology. The first Meeting of States Parties to the Convention takes place on 26 and 27 March 2009. The exhibition "Cultural Secrets under the Waves" is expected to highlight the event.
Editorial Comment: The Convention seems to be focused on the protection of underwater archaeological sites from treasure hunters so that they may be preserved for scientific study, with a subsidiary concern for sustainable tourism. It seeks to encourage states party to the Convention to enact their own legal protections for underwater cultural heritage, recognizing the sovereignty of nations over their coastal zones under the Law of the Seas. The United States has not yet ratified the Convention.

The Convention allows removal of underwater materials that are in danger. It is hoped that the staff from the Culture Program of UNESCO is coordinating with the staff of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission to obtain expert advice on pollution, tsunamis and other oceanographic factors that might endanger specific underwater sites.

For North America, one of the most interesting archaeological issues is how the Americas were first populated. During the last ice age, there was a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, and it is believed that tribal groups crossed on that bridge and their descendants eventually populated North and South America. The question is whether these people first moved down the coasts or whether they took advantage of the retreat of glaciers to move south through the middle of what is now Canada. Sea level has risen 100 feet since the peak of the ice age so that if these first settlers moved down the coasts, the fragile remains of their passing are likely to be underwater if they exist at all. With the rapid degradation of coastal zones, it would seem urgent to do the underwater archaeological work to find any such remains as would exist. A collaborative North American effort, perhaps facilitated by UNESCO might help. JAD

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