Cultural Heritage’s Nautical Future


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UNESCO estimates that there are some three million shipwrecks scattered across the ocean floor. This means there is a vast trove of archaeological material awaiting discovery, all of it, fortunately, safe from destruction or theft by the criminal factions now operating on land.

Cultural Heritage’s Nautical Future
Ancient Roman amphorae off the coast of the Southern France 
[Credit: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images]

The technology needed for deep-sea exploration is advancing rapidly. What once seemed like science fiction will soon become a reality, with exploratory probes not only transmitting images but operating retrieval devices equipped to reveal artifacts and move them to the surface. Archaeologists have also begun using DNA analysis on wrecks in the Mediterranean, yielding information ranging from what onboard bowls once contained to the home port of the sunken ship.

But only a tiny fraction of this material has been explored. For example, of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin listings in Italy, only three involve underwater archaeology. And this in the nation estimated to have among the highest concentrations of archaeological sites in the world.

If discovered relatively undisturbed, shipwrecks offer a tantalizing opportunity for archaeologists. They can yield remarkably detailed information about both the cargo and the presumed origins and destination of the vessel. They can also provide extraordinary insight into the geopolitics, economies and artistic inclinations of any given period of the ancient world. Archaeologists follow a rigorous set of procedures not just to retrieve objects but to preserve whatever information about them the site itself can disclose.

In recent decades, a cottage industry of private exploration companies has emerged, lured by the promise of gold bullion and coins known to be in wrecks of trading vessels from the 16th century onward. Many of these are clustered along the eastern coastlines of North and South America. Such expeditions are rarer in bodies of water frequented in antiquity owing to our lack of information about lost treasure. But given the rate of progress in detecting and evaluating the contents of sunken vessels, we will doubtless soon see an increase in the pursuit of ancient shipwrecks.

But here lies the problem: The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that international waters begin 13.8 miles (22.2 kilometers or 12 nautical miles) from a country’s coastal low-water mark—making any shipwreck found more than 12 nautical miles offshore subject to its provisions, not the laws of the neighboring country. UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which seeks to offer protection for shipwrecks, has not been ratified by many countries with longstanding seafaring heritage nor by the majority of those countries with significant art markets. Given the vast quantity of presumed shipwrecks in international waters, we face nothing short of a cultural calamity if private salvage operations are allowed to go forward unabated.

The high cost of thorough undersea archaeological expeditions inside a nation’s territorial waters is prompting some countries to enter into partnerships with commercial concerns. This raises vexing questions about sacrifices of scientific thoroughness in exchange for expediency.

In one case in the late 1990s, the Indonesian government contracted to split with Seabed Explorations any trove of artifacts that company discovered when it excavated what became known as the Belitung shipwreck, a ninth-century Arabian dhow that sank off the coast of Belitung Island in the Java Sea. The craft was presumably en route home to the Middle East from China, because its contents included a massive haul of some 60,000 artifacts dating to the Tang dynasty, ranging from gold, silver and ceramic vessels to luxury and funerary objects. Multiple archaeologists subsequently protested that the speed of the commercial recovery and lack of qualified experts had failed to meet standards of best practice in excavation techniques, resulting in a serious loss of the facts and context of the artifacts.

While the intentional looting and destruction of land-based sites is in the headlines today, another looming challenge to those seeking to safeguard the past awaits us underwater. And a fresh look at international accords governing the Law of the Sea as well as national laws is urgently needed.

Mr. Anderson is a research affiliate for Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Antiquities: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press). 

Author: Maxwell L. Anderson | Source: The Wall Street Journal [July 12, 2016]



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