An essay on the protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.

I found this assignment really rewarding. It allowed me to look closer into the legalities of underwater excavation and the risks that are posed to historic wrecks. This is a topic that appears in the news frequently in the UK and around the World. It is definitely a topic that need more recognition and awareness.

Discuss the success or otherwise of the UK’s protection and management of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) in contrast to the ways it is done in other countries.

This paper will examine how effective infrastructure and legislation in the UK has been in protecting underwater sites of great cultural and historic importance within its inland, internal and territorial waters. Britain is rich in maritime archaeological sites that provide a unique record of humanities interaction with the environment and each other. However, over the last half century a rapid advance in technology, and wider access to specialist equipment, has made submerged sites more accessible to both archaeologists and those wishing to profit from Britain’s Underwater Cultural Heritage. Un-seen underwater landscapes are liable to destruction when modern infrastructure such as oil rigs or windfarms are built upon them; without effective legislation and enforcement these areas will be lost forever. Major discrepancies between the protection for archaeological sites on land and on water have become particularity apparent following the increased availability of SCUBA technology. Shipwrecks have become targets for non-scientific exploration and salvaging. As arguably the most valuable and accessible items of cultural heritage found underwater, shipwrecks will therefore form the focus of this paper.

This term ‘Underwater Cultural Heritage’ (UCH) was set out on November 2, 2001 with the declaration of the Convention of Underwater Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. The Term UCH is understood to mean …

‘all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years such as: sites, structures, buildings, artefacts and human remains, together with their archaeological and natural context; vessels, aircraft, other vehicles or any part thereof, their cargo or other contents; and Objects of prehistoric character.’ (UNESCO, 2001)

This was one of the most important milestones in the protection and legality of maritime archaeology worldwide. It set out the basic principles to protect submerged sites of historic, cultural and archaeological without regulating the ownership of wrecks or changing existing maritime zones. This convention met calls for due weight to ‘…be given to the underwater cultural heritage in law, to redress the balance with salvage interests.’ (Hutchinson, 1996:290). However, of the 55 states to adopt this policy the UK did not seek ratification and has yet to review its position (UNESCO, 2001).

The matters of protecting and managing UCH are not only a problem within British waters but is a subject of great dispute globally. The enactment of cultural heritage framework is the most common mechanism though which underwater archaeological sites are protected (Bowens, 2009:45-52; Camarda & Scovazzi, 2002). The discovery of the Titanic in 1985 created mass publicity for the potential of UCH; used by many marketing departments of salvage companies to generate interest and investment. The legal preceding over the rights and ethic of retreating items from the wreck of the Titanic highlighted the vulnerability of Underwater Cultural Heritage and became a catalyst for international action (Dromgoole,2003). The legislation relating to the discovery, survey and excavation of Underwater Cultural Heritage has been termed ‘a legal labyrinth’ (Altes, 1976) because of its complexity and difficulty to reinforce. Nevertheless, all countries should provide a political framework to protect and manage submerged cultural sites and artefacts to safeguard areas of historic and cultural importance to prevent their exploitation (Staniforth,2010;2).

The UK has been successful in protecting and managing Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) within its territorial waters and inland waterways however, the system of safeguarding is not without fault. UCH is not managed by a UK-wide agency but it’s authority is divided between four key organizations; English Heritage (EH), Historic Scotland (HS), Cadw (Welsh Governments historic environment service) and The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) (Firth, 2014:8-9). This provides the UK with bodies of experts who undertake assessment, investigation and research within Britain so to advice local and national governments in how best to protect heritage material in law. Responsibilities for the management of the marine environment are also devolved to the marine management Organization (MMO) in England, Scotland and Wales and NIEA in Northern Ireland (Firth, 2014:9).  Figure 1 shows the different organisations responsible for the planning and licensing of activities within the marine environment, involving the protection and management of UCH.

Figure 1 table of marine management authorities in the UK ( Firth, 2009:9)

Thinking of historic shipwrecks as time-capsules, a plethora of interpretations can be extracted from their excavation making them, arguably, the most important cultural artefacts to be found underwater. Hutchinson posits that ‘the threats posed to historic wrecks are relatively new’ (1996:287). Indeed, the management of UCH in the UK became of increasing concern following the increasing availability of SCUBA equipment in the late 1960’s (Firth, 2014:2). The accessibility of underwater cultural sites has improved because of advancements in technology that have made the underwater world reachable to a greater number of people.

In the UK there are over 100 wrecks that are designated protected wrecks by one of the three legislations; The Protection of Military Remains Act (1986), The Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) and the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act (1979) (Glen, 2017).  With not one specific legislation acting as an overarching policy on the management and protection of wrecks it is of little surprise that there has been additional Acts to meet the demands resultant from new discovery’s and the development of technologies.

The Mary Rose is one such wreck that dramatically altered British law and promoted the potential of British Underwater Cultural Heritage when successfully excavated and preserved (Marsden, 2003). It highlighted discrepancies in the UK’s maritime law and the greater need to protect wrecks within the terrestrial waters of Britain. The Mary Rose was the second Wreck to be protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act the year after its enactment in 1973. The Mary Rose is under the authority of Historic England. The designation and licensing of wrecks under the 1973 Act is managed by the four key heritage organisations in the UK. By managing it regionally using national legislation, wrecks are able to be managed closely and locally for example it allows the regional bodies to license the survey and exploration of wrecks within their area of authority. However, as these organisations do not just reside over the protection and management of archaeology underwater but also onshore. This has both advantages and disadvantages to the protection of the archaeological record but can divert attention away from underwater sites. The development of legislation relating directly to underwater heritage sites helps to bridge the discrepancy between laws to protect land and submerged archaeology. Yet a licensing system to dive upon UCH, in theory, ensures that ‘the destination of all material recovered from an underwater site should be appropriate to its archaeological and historic value’ (Hutchinson, 1996:289).

Shipwrecks are arguably the most valuable items of cultural heritage in the UK and trace the Island nations development and interaction with the environment and other humans. Shipwrecks are certainly the most sought-after by salvagers. In recent years we have seen a global and continuing increase in interest and debate surrounding the exploitation of shipwrecks (Hutchinson, 1996;287).  The key legislative framework to protected wrecked vessels is the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act. This states that …

It is an offence for unauthorised persons to tamper with, damage or remove any part of the wreck or its contents; to carry out diving or salvage operations; and to deposit anything which would obliterate or obstruct access to the site. Activity can only be done under license’ (The Protection of Wrecks Act, 1973).

Hundreds of examples can be drawn from across the world where shipwrecks have been exploited by salvors, indeed it was not until Mary Rose project that British archaeologists working privately applying modern scientific methods did not have to auction any findings. One alarming example of commercial salvaging destroying UCH was is that of the Galdermalsen; sinking in the South China Sea in 1752 the ‘Nanking’ of treasure in 85 resulted in the auctioning of £10 million worth of artefacts as Christies Amsterdam (Hutchinson, 1996;288). This event was televised with archaeologists noting the disregard for the archaeological material such as the destruction of wooden chests so as to access the cargo underneath. The position academics and government ministers hold on this type of wanton destruction of Historic material is apparent; as stated by The National Maritime Museum …

‘…it is unacceptable for anyone to contribute to the destruction of an underwater site without carrying out scientific investigation appropriate to the archaeological and historical value of the site.’ (The National Maritime Museum, in Hutchinson, 1996:289).

The effectiveness of the UK’s safeguarding against the destruction of cultural heritage underwater is made evident in the conviction of those illegally trespassing or removing items from registered wrecks along the British coast and within the ownership of British sovereignty abroad. One accounts of salvage offences within British terrestrial water in 2013 makes evident the success of the UK’s protection and mangement of Underwater Cultural Heritage. By removing tin ingots from the shipwreck of the SS Cheerful, which sunk in 1885 of the coast of northern Cornwall, without licence or approval from the Marine Management organization (MMO), he infringed on several items of legislation such as the marine and Coastal Act of 2009 (Hodgetts, 2016). In accordance with the 1995 Merchant Shipping Act – part IX regarding Salvage law – material recovered from wrecks must be declared to the Receiver of Wreck, in this instance it was not. The act also completely violated The Protection of Wrecks Act (1973). This case brought together the force of not only the MMO but also the Royal Navy and Historic England; all the forces entrusted with the protection of UCH. Dr Christopher Pater, head of marine planning for Historic England, explains the importance of this case …

This has been an important case for Historic England to support the Marine Management Organization because it is essential that when individuals target historic shipwrecks for unlawful salvage, we can provide vital information… The SS Cheerful dates from a time when steam power was replacing sail and tin ingot smelting in Cornwall was an active industry, so it is a loss to us all if sites like this are picked apart and the wreck and its contents lost piece by piece.’ (Hodgetts, 2016).

This case is a key demonstration of the determination and success of the MMO is preventing unlawful salvage operations in the UK maritime licensing area to protect Underwater Cultural Heritage (Hodgetts, 2016).  However the Uk does not experience the same issue with salvager as states such as the USA experience due to its comprehensive legislative framework.

However, where the UK is less successful in protecting its Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) is when wrecks, still under ownership of the British crown, are in international or another’s states terrestrial waters. The UK’s involvement with multi national bodies helps to set legislative precedents to protect their own interests in foreign wreck sites. Understanding the conventions and international laws surrounding this issue allows an evaluation in the success of Britain in protecting its UCH in foreign waters where national bodies such as the MMO have no jurisdiction.

Each taking on a slightly different approach; EH, HS, Cadw and NIEA, enact a shared view set out by the British Administration set out in documents such as the ‘UK Marine Policy Statement’ (MPS) (2011). The MPS is a broad statement that aligns with the definitions used in The European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (revised) 1992. It comments on the ‘view shared by the UK Administrations’ to protect ‘heritage assists’ (UK Maritime Policy Statement, 2011:, with the aim to produce specific policy outcomes to achieve the sustainable development of the UK maritime area.

The UK is a signatory of The European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage, as a member state of the Council of Europe. The 1992 convention is a revised treaty of the original London Convention of 1969. The cause for revision was the changing nature of threat faced by archaeological heritage across Europe both on land and underwater. It established a new legal standard for Europe to conserve and enhance archaeological heritage. The UK’s participation and engagement with this policy shows the cooperation between the continental states to preserve shared and national. However, this has little impact, overall, on how the UK conducts its protection and management of UCH.

The UK has effective measures of protection and management. It has addressed the changing nature of the underwater environment following the sophistication of techniques and technologies that make the submerged world easier to search and exploit (Hutchinson, 1996;287). This legislative approach to the protection of underwater archaeology is only successful because of the organisations who actively manage the UK’s terrestrial waters. However, there is still more that can be done to ensure that Underwater Cultural Heritage is preserved for future generations. Communications and awareness about the maritime laws surrounding submerged heritage sites are available but minimal with some archaeologists calling for more widespread education (Hutchinson, 1996:290). Regardless there is a clear and conscientious effort to ensure that archaeology underwater is not compromised to make profit and ‘the destination of all material recovered from an underwater site should be appropriate to its archaeological and historic value’ (Hutchinson, 1996:289). Museums such as The Mary Rose Museum, The Vasa and the kyrenia Shipwreck museum are all evidence of the growing response to the advancement in technology and danger wrecks now face by both amateur divers and professional salvagers. Examples such as the SS Cheerful prove how successful the UK’s system of protection and management is in relation to those across the globe less concerned with the protection of heritage and the willingness of trade science and discovery for instant profit as in the case of the Galdermalsen.










Word count – 2283












Refence list –

Altes,Korthals , Submarine Antiquities: A Legal Labyrinth, in Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce, 1976.

Bowens, A. ed. 2009. Underwater Archaeology; the NAS guide to principles and practice. 2nd ed. Malden. M.A: Blackwell.

Dromgoole, S., 2003. 2001 UNESCO convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage. The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, 18(1), pp.59-108.

Hutchinson, G., 1996. Threats to underwater cultural heritage. The problems of unprotected archaeological and historic sites, wrecks and objects found at sea. Marine Policy20(4), pp.287-290.

Camarda,G. Scovazzi,T. 2002. The Protection of Underwater Cultural heritage: Legal Aspects: a conference held in Palermo and Siracuas (8-10 March, 2001). Gouffre.

Staniforth, M. Hunter, J. & Jateff, E. 2010. International Approaches to Underwater Cultural Heritage. In Harris, J. W. (ed.) Maritime Law: Issues, Challenges and Implications. Nova Science Publishers. New York, USA. pp. 1-25.

Firth, Antony. 2014,. UK Safeguarding of Underwater Cultural Heritage; Factual Background. Briefing Paper for BA/HFF Steering Committee in Underwater Cultural heritage. MIFS, Fjordr Limited.

Glen.J. 2017 Underwater Cultural heritage: written statement – HCWS208. Accessed via (

Marsden, P., 2003. Sealed by Time: the Loss and Recovery of the Mary Rose. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 32, pp.262-282.

H.M, Government, 2973. The Protection of Wrecks Act. Accessed through (

Hodgetts,L. 2016. Man found guilty of shipwreck salvage offences. Practical Boat owner. Assessed via (

HM, Government,.2011, UK Maritime Policy Statement, The Stationery Office Limited.  Accessed via (



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