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"Did I Hear $16 Million?"

That treasure hunting has become big business is further evidenced by sales at the international auction houses. Christie's has become the world specialist in what it calls "material recovered legally or under license from historical shipwrecks". In 1986 it raised $16m from the sale of 3,786 lots of Chinese porcelain and gold ingots from what was called the "Nanking Cargo", salvaged from the Dutch-flagged Geldermahlsen, wrecked in 1752 in the South China Sea. And in 1992, the sale of porcelain known as the "Vung Tao Cargo," raised from a wreck off the southern coast of Viet Nam, brought in almost $7.2 million.

An increasing number of countries are becoming aware of the urgency of the situation. But the means to contain treasure hunters are limited and the issues involved complex. To fill the gaps and provide a framework for dealing with these issues, UNESCO, the UN Office of Legal Affairs, Division of Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have begun working on an international convention to protect underwater cultural heritage. "This is not a new field for UNESCO," says Lyndel Prott, the head of the Organization's International Standards Section. "In the late 1950s we expressed concern about underwater heritage and set out guidelines for underwater archaeological excavation, essentially covering activities in inland and territorial waters of states. Technological developments since then, and the spread of sport diving have greatly increased the threat to underwater sites to the point where further regulation is urgently needed."

The International Law Association (ILA) has presented a draft to UNESCO which could be used as the basis for an eventual convention. But what exactly would it aim to protect?

According to the ILA draft "underwater cultural heritage means all underwater traces of human existence including sites, structures, artefacts and human remains, together with their archaeological and natural contexts, as well as wrecks, such as vessels, aircraft, other vehicles or any part thereof, its cargo or other contents, together with its archaeological and natural heritage."

"This definition was designed to help administrators and courts to decide whether something is covered by the convention," explains Graham Henderson, Chairman of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) International Committee on Underwater Cultural Heritage, and Director of the Maritime Museum of Western Australia. However it has its limits. "It only applies to heritage which has been lost or abandoned and submerged for at least 100 years. It would be up to states parties to introduce national legislation covering sites underwater for less than this. But it would leave the Titanic, which sank in 1912, unprotected," said Henderson. "Neither does the draft apply to any warship, military aircraft, naval auxiliary, or other vessels or aircraft and their contents owned or operated by a state."

The Titanic also illustrates another major problem, that of heritage sunk in international waters. The ILA draft proposes three solutions: one is for states to control the activities of their nationals; another is to forbid the use of their ports to service vessels engaged in excavation by improper methods; and the third is to forbid entry to their territory of artefacts improperly raised.

In terms of the types of activities that can be carried out on a site, the ILA suggests that as a first option, underwater heritage should be preserved in situ. It proposes that public access be encouraged, and that non-destructive techniques, non-intrusive sampling, be given preference to excavation. It insists that investigation be accompanied by adequate documentation.

The treasure hunters argue that this approach benefits very few, that while a wreck lies buried no-one gets to share its knowledge or contents, and that archaeologists, research institutes and governments don't have the means to pay for excavation, especially in deep water.

 

Copyright by Dirk Hansen

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