Theme 2003: Underwater Cultural Heritage

ICUCH, the 2001 Convention and beyond

The ICOMOS International Scientific Committee for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (ICUCH ) was created in 1991 in Sydney, Australia. It then consisted of 18 specialist members designated by the Australian Graeme Henderson who also chaired the Committee. Its first mission was to draft the text of a charter setting out the principles and conditions of underwater archaeological activity, a charter which was intended to serve as a fundamental reference on cultural matters for the drawing up of the new UNESCO Convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage.

The Committee worked for over five years to prepare the final text of what was to become in 1996 the ICOMOS Charter, ratified by the ICOMOS Annual General Meeting held in Sofia, Bulgaria. Once adopted, the charter became a crucial reference document for those in charge of managing underwater cultural heritage. But no-one had foreseen how successful and important this document would become during the four years of sometimes fierce negotiations at UNESCO in Paris to frame the new Convention: throughout the deliberations, the ICOMOS Charter turned out to be the cornerstone and focus of the debate, and after very slight modifications it was in fact incorporated into the Annex or "Rules". Several of the hundreds of delegates present at the final sessions in the spring and summer of 2001 claimed that the Convention would never have seen the light of day without the contribution of the ICOMOS Charter. When the deliberations were finally completed, the General Session of UNESCO at the end of October 2001 witnessed the proclamation of unanimous approval of the Annex, even by the countries that were most opposed to the Convention. Several opponents went so far as to apply the Annex even though they did not intend to ratify the Convention itself.

Over the four years of deliberations at UNESCO, ICUCH became - on behalf of the whole discipline - the guardian and advocate of principles and standards for the management of underwater cultural heritage. To this end, it has had to warn participants in the deliberations time and time again about the major dangers to be avoided in the Convention: the commercial exploitation of cultural heritage, the source of all problems; the law of salvage as applied in many countries with common law systems, a law which literally runs counter to the concept of cultural protection; protection by selection or designation, versus blanket coverage once something has been submerged for 100 years; the danger of non-availability of trained officials with a level of expertise in underwater archaeology appropriate for the importance of the sites concerned; the absence in very many countries of training and expertise in the field of underwater archaeology and the restoration of submerged objects.

This final point, training, has become the new rallying cry of ICUCH over the last four years and more. With this in mind, we have decided to support the basic training course of the NAS (Nautical Archaeology Society of the United Kingdom) as the international standard. This initiatory course, lasting several days, has a very sound structure, and has turned out to be an extraordinarily useful asset in initiating and raising the awareness of divers, heritage managers, other interested parties and even heritage robbers, about the importance and the non-renewable nature of underwater cultural heritage and the necessity of protecting and correctly managing this irreplaceable heritage of humanity. It offers underwater heritage managers the possibility of drawing on assistance from those who work in the front line, including sporting divers, when taking concrete action to protect the heritage. For over three years now, ICUCH and several of its partners have succeeded in setting up the NAS course in the southern zone of South America, where it has been taught in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and where competent instructors have been trained. ICUCH has also helped to promote the use of the course in Canada and the United States. Using UNESCO funds and with UNESCO 's agreement, ICUCH has taken the initiative of transposing the NAS course curriculum (whose cost initially made it inaccessible to less privileged countries) into electronic CD-ROM format, which is more accessible for translation purposes, and which ICUCH can distribute free of charge where necessary. Africa and South-east Asia are now being targeted for the introduction of the NAS course. As for training in restoring cultural heritage items taken from the sea, the first student (from Uruguay) is currently benefiting from the ICUCH initiative and has begun a one-year training programme with the advanced technology laboratory of the U.S. Navy underwater archaeology department based in Charleston, as part of the Hunley Project and with the support of the Friends of the Hunley association. The student will probably complete his course in Canada next year.

All this represents a gigantic challenge for a small committee of volunteers representing all the regions of the world. To successfully take up this international challenge, the committee increased the number of voting members from 18 to 23 for the recently-held third election of members. In view of the wide range of challenges faced and the large number of "scams" in this discipline, it is important that ICUCH, with the agreement of the National Committees, should be highly selective in the choice of its voting members. Members are recruited from among acknowledged underwater archaeologists who are actively involved in the discipline, except of course in countries in which this discipline does not exist. Members must have unblemished reputations, and be good team workers. All these qualities are in fact more important than the titles of the candidates. We even recommend that all the Committees should consult us before they propose a candidate. As underwater archaeology sees itself as a very small family in an extremely demanding but still recent discipline, we often know better than the National Committees themselves the real value of the candidates from the different countries. Finally, ICUCH funds urgently and requests the assistance of the National Committees in order to continue the struggle for the underwater heritage and its international training effort. Without this assistance, the work undertaken on behalf of ICOMOS cannot continue, and this Convention (which has put the name of ICOMOS on everyone's lips) will not be applied in most countries because of a lack of personnel in the field and a lack of expertise.

Robert Grenier
ICUCH President