Theme 2003: Underwater Cultural Heritage

A reply to typical concerns from a diver about the UNESCO convention

- Natural destruction
- Private funding or public funding and "history learning"
- Divers and the Convention

Dear diver

Your letters, obviously coming from somebody with extensive shipwreck diving experience and a love of the sea, raised concerns about the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, especially about the question of in situ preservation.

But before getting to the points you raised, let me introduce myself and the organisation I represent (as you did in your letters) in order for you to better understand where I come from. I shall also refer to some magazine publications, which should be easily accessible to you.

I have spent the better part of my career on the North Atlantic coast, working all over the Canadian maritime provinces for just over thirty-eight years. During this time I have been involved professionally in underwater archaeology as an archaeologist for Parks Canada (an organisation similar to the U.S. National Parks Service), which has taken me all over Canada, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and south from the Great Lakes up to 500 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle (see for example the short feature on the Breadalbane, 1853, in National Geographic Magazine, June 1982). Our Parks Canada archaeological team has performed over 50,000 hours of diving, some, like you and your diving partners, in vicious currents, truly zero visibility, and very cold water. Our most significant project involved 14,000 hours of diving in the icy waters of Red Bay, Labrador, on a sixteenth-century Spanish galleon from the Basque country.

The complete archaeological excavation of this galleon between 1978 and 1985 has been featured in a thirty two page article, including the cover page, in the National Geographic Magazine of July 1985. Incidentally, the same ship has become the official international symbol of heritage shipwreck for UNESCO (see attached). A museum built at the small fishing village of Red Bay by Parks Canada, now exhibits artefacts and a partial replica of the galleon, and importantly, it supplements the local economy devastated by the closure of the cod fishery. The museum also offers visitors the world's only existing sixteenth-century Basque whaling boat, the ancestor of modern search and rescue craft. This museum now attracts tourists from all over the world to this remote place and constitutes the village's only continuous source of income. The exhibit, like good wine, will grow more valuable with time. One hundred percent of the underwater cultural heritage from this economically deprived region has been preserved and conserved for the benefit of the people of Red Bay, Canada, the United States, and indeed the world; it will also benefit future generations.
Their underwater cultural heritage was not split 50/50 with some commercial enterprise: it is 100% theirs. Rather, the project has resulted in a 4,000 page archaeological report, which finally helps uncover the mysteries of ship design and construction in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But even at Red Bay, the notion of in situ preservation has been put into practice; two other sixteenth-century galleons and their accompanying artefacts we found have been left in situ for future generations, which brings us back to your question about in situ preservation and the Convention.

Years from now, my successors will not be stopped by the Convention from investigating and excavating one or two of these in situ galleons, if they can scientifically justify doing so. According to the Convention, in particular the in situ clause, if researchers can demonstrate that for valid benefits to science, to Canadians, or even to the Basques, one or two of the other galleons should be excavated, they will be able to do so, so long as they are in full compliance with the Convention. If you read the text attentively, in situ preservation is referred to as an option, as the preferred option, short of having justifications to do otherwise. Again, it is only an option.

Placed prominently as it is in the text, and often misread, the in situ clause has led many people to misjudge it and to truly believe that the Convention puts a lid on all excavations. This is absolutely not true: if it was the case, no archaeologist, no scientist could ever support such a Convention. The Convention is about ensuring that the world's underwater cultural heritage is preserved for the benefit of mankind and not for the benefit of a few, as it stands now in many parts of the world. And to preserve for the "benefit of mankind" means either by in situ preservation and accessibility, or by justified partial or complete archaeological excavation leading to public access through museum presentations, publications, or other media of dissemination such as films, videos, CD-ROMs, Web sites etc.

I know that many of your friends and colleagues respect some of the above steps to a certain degree, such as collecting objects with great care, taking pictures and notes, ensuring care and conservation of the objects once removed to the surface, and finally ensuring some dissemination and/or accessibility. Some divers already take these steps with a passion, dedication and care that sometimes exceeds what is done by some archaeologists. But this in itself is not archaeology, and represents only a portion of the archaeological process. It is here that I beg to differ with you on several points stated in your letter.

Natural destruction

Like you, I can state that over my thirty-eight year career "I have witnessed the natural destruction of North Atlantic shipwrecks", but with important qualifications.

Although it is very easy to generalise, metal wrecks, like the Titanic, tend to remain more intact for a while after sinking. On the other hand wooden vessels exposed in salt water tend to weaken more rapidly and to collapse onto the bottom or into mud or sand, opening up like a book. This relatively quick collapsing and burying of a good portion of wooden hulls and their contents can however help them to withstand the long-term, damaging effects of the elements. I do not want to give you the impression that I think most of a given ship will be necessarily preserved in this way. I simply want to point out that significant and important parts of the wreck and its contents can be preserved. Hence the very well preserved hull of a 2,400 year old Greek merchantman on which I worked in Kyrenia, Cyprus, in 1968; hence the extremely well preserved hulls of a four hundred year old Spanish galleons in Red Bay at the edge of the North Atlantic; hence the very stable partial remains of two of the largest French warships of the mid seventeenth-century, preserved in situ in the harbour of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, also on the North Atlantic seaboard. And so on.

Some of the examples that you provide are relatively modern vessels, mostly 20th century and which, by the way, would not fall under the Convention's one hundred year minimum blanket coverage. It is sad that they do deteriorate and do finally collapse, given that they are not always well-protected by a deep blanket of sand or silt to help them retain structural integrity. But, all that being said, the collapsing of these hulls does not necessarily destroy their contents and their archaeological potential to provide us with what you call their "history". They can still be valid sites to record and even excavate, if done properly, to extract an enormous amount of information. This is true even supposing they go undiscovered for hundreds of years from now. Given this degradation, the challenge before us is, I believe, to preserve the history of these wrecks, record and identify them non-intrusively before they collapse, and make these findings accessible to the public: all of this, though, without excavation or removal of objects.

Notwithstanding the harsh environmental conditions that you refer to, this long-term potential for archaeological survival has proven true for other North Atlantic shipwrecks we have studied: like HMS Sapphire, 1696; like the Prudent and the Célèbre, 1758; like the Machault, 1760; like the Breadalbane, 1853; and like the partial remains of the Elizabeth and Mary, 1690, the oldest American-built vessel ever found. And there are many others. It has been well demonstrated that shipwrecks can last thousands of years underwater as valid and fruitful archaeological sites. If shipwrecks are seriously damaged by natural destruction in given areas, and I have witnessed this myself, the damage generally occurs well within the first century of immersion. This is a phenomenon that I think you have described in your letters. After that initial period, the degradation can be more or less stopped or slowed down until the site reaches an equilibrium and stabilises itself for centuries. In this context, the "in situ preservation" concept is an effective one and has been tried on sites in the United States, Australia, Denmark and Canada, to name just a few countries having employed it.

I find it extremely ironic that most sport divers, commercial divers and treasure hunters unanimously show their concerns about the degradation of shipwrecks caused by natural elements and sometimes by man when none of them over the last half century has ever fully excavated an historic shipwreck, raised it and preserved it for future generations: they show only interest in raising objects from within the wrecks, and none seem to be truly concerned by the wrecks themselves. In fact, after more than half a century of scuba-diving activities around the world, and contrary to continuous claims made by famous US treasures hunters that they have saved many more shipwrecks than archaeologists, not a single heritage shipwreck has been saved by them, anywhere in the world. Only archaeologists have done so.

Private funding or public funding and "history learning"

Public funding has been, and continues to be central to some of the most extensive "history learning" (to use your own terminology) projects around the world, including those in the United States, contrary to your assertion that the public "would never go for it". At the moment, two of the most exciting underwater archaeology projects in the world are conducted in the United States: the publicly-funded H.L. Hunley (1864) project, and the wreck of Louis Quatorze's ship La Belle (1683), a Texas State funded project started during Governor W. Bush's governorship. These are truly and completely what you call in your letter "history learning" projects, with no demonstrated equivalent in the private sector, now or anytime in the past. One has also to remember the late 1970's publicly funded project on the San Esteban, 1554, off the coast of Padre Island, Texas.

As a matter of fact, the USA has by far the largest number of publicly funded marine archaeologists in the world, working either in Federal or State organisations to protect and manage for future generations the maritime history of your country. There is no reason to believe that this trend will not continue and expand, and that other publicly funded projects will not take place in the United States. Also many dozens of publicly funded projects have been completed or are ongoing in many countries around the world.

But also non-profit, privately funded organisations have run, and continue to run outstanding projects around the world. One of the largest and most famous is perhaps the excavation in England of the Mary Rose, 1545, which began in the late 1970's. Several non-profit, privately funded projects are going on in Argentina. A large project is now taking place in Sri Lanka, with various sources of non-profit funding. But the most famous and longest running program of non-profit funded projects remain the United States based operations of Dr. George Bass' Institute of Nautical Archaeology, from College Station, Texas. Some of the institute's work is on wrecks off the coast of Turkey, some of which have been surviving in situ for thousands of years. These are true "history learning" projects, involving much more than the careful recovery of random objects which you allude to in your letters: they are run with mostly American know-how, with mostly American private funding. And this out-standing American achievement and contribution to the world's maritime history has been going on for over forty years, since the early 1960's. As you can see, private funding per se does not run counter to this Convention, as long as it is not for profit through the selling of objects and/or through the dispersal of collections.

A special seminar held in Sacramento, California nearly fifteen years ago on the subject of commercial operations run for profit with the assistance of bona fide professional archaeologists came to an obvious and unanimous conclusion: it does not work as a way to recover history as you say, since it simply leads to the destruction of data and knowledge. The profit motive runs into conflict with the time needed to conduct good research. Remember the old saying "time is money". This is without taking into account the ethical problem of selling artefacts, which is rejected by this Convention.

Divers and the Convention

This Convention does not prevent divers from diving on shipwrecks immersed for more than one hundred years: along with "in situ" preservation, the Convention features public access. Nobody is prevented from diving over these one hundred year old wrecks, as long as they do not interfere with them, dig into them, or remove objects. For this intrusive work, competent persons would require authorisation from the proper authorities.

In Canada, many dive tour operators have seen the light and now realise that archaeologists work for them by preserving the wrecks, their bread and butter. They collaborate with us. They are becoming our allies. There is no better place to understand this than around the Fortress of Louisbourg, in Nova Scotia. There, the situation regarding wreck preservation is black and white. Within the harbour, where Parks Canada has been managing and protecting shipwrecks in situ since the early 1960's, wrecks have remained, literally, the same since their discovery. I can personally vouch for this since I made my first open water dive there in 1963 on the most famous of these wrecks, the Célèbre, a 64-gun French warship sunk in 1758. The wreck is exactly like I saw it forty years ago. Now, any diver can visit this and other wrecks in the harbour with private entrepreneurs licensed to give diving tours using non-intrusive diving practices. People can still see the wreck of the Célèbre as I saw it four decades ago and their descendants will be able to see it much the same way as they do today. Had this wreck and the half-dozen others in the harbour's pocket of preservation been left open to free interference like the others of the same age outside the harbour, there would be little or nothing left to see. Wrecks as close as hundreds of metres outside the harbour, subjected to artefact retrieval and intrusive investigation over the years by various groups and individuals, have been destroyed; these non-renewable resources are gone forever. Wrecks offer a one shot deal: either you do it right or do not do it at all. You state in your letter that "I love the shipwrecks I dive and wish to protect them for future generations in the best way possible". Which would you choose: the Louisbourg Harbour in-situ preservation way, or the out of the harbour free-for-all, which leads to the desertification of the shipwreck landscape.
The fact is, this Convention is working to implement your statement I quoted above. In my view it is the only way to achieve the goal of protection. The Convention is not for a few privileged divers or commercial entrepreneurs, and it is not for archaeologists or civil servants: it is for the protection the world's submerged heritage, which belongs to all people and stakeholders.

But, if intervention is to take place on shipwrecks one hundred or more years old, who is best equipped to do the work? This is a vital question. Suppose, for example, you need heart surgery. Do you visit a dentist? If you need to build a suspension bridge, do you employ an archaeologist? You are a professional, and I think that you know the answers. So why should the requirement for appropriate professional expertise be any different when dealing with heritage shipwreck? Should not a specialist be called upon to lead the study of an archaeological site?

Then, you might question, what is left to do for the divers to do, the very divers who have been researching, finding, and in some cases documenting wrecks for years? Should they be mere spectators? My answer is no. We need divers as on-site collaborators and as partners in wreck protection and preservation. They are, and will continue to be, a vital asset in surmounting the problems of cost and limited resources in researching, documenting, surveying, and presenting to the public the thousands of wrecks around our coasts. Given the right opportunities through training and awareness, this can work beautifully and I am not dreaming.

For instance, we have been working for nearly ten years now with a diver training course to develop their awareness, knowledge and recording skills, in order to help them better understand archaeological work and to be better qualified to competently assist our specialists in underwater work. I am talking about the N.A.S. course, named after the Nautical Archeology Society of the United Kingdom. This two to three day initiation course has proven to be a winner everywhere it has been tried, from North America, to Europe, to South Africa, and, most recently in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. The ICOMOS International Committee on the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which I also represent, is now promoting it as an international tool to assist in the post-Convention period.

After attending the course, divers who in the past looted or damaged historic shipwrecks, often doing so with the best intentions, care, and love for the sites, now turn out now to be our best allies after being given the chance to understand the negative aspects of what they were doing. To better understand our experience, you may wish to peek into the National Geographic Magazine edition of August 2000. On page 72, you will read the marvellous story of a wrecked ship, which belonged to the ill-fated American attack on Québec by Sir William Phips in 1690. The discovery of the oldest American-built vessel ever found was made on Christmas Eve 1994 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River by a local diver. Marc Tremblay used to be, up until a few months prior to his discovery, one of the best wreck looters on the shipwreck littered coast of Québec.

A few weeks after taking the N.A.S. course, Marc found the 1690 wreck uncovered by the "storm of the century" in front of his summer cottage, in a few feet of water. Appearing in front of him was a shopping-centre-like display of swords, muskets, axes, pistols and many other types of artefacts. Instead of gathering them up for his private collection or for selling a few as he would have done before taking the N.A.S. course, he took photographs, video, and measurements without touching anything. He then provided all of this information to the Provincial and Federal authorities, which very quickly collaborated to launch a multi-year project involving Tremblay and his dive partners who had also taken the course. For the better part of two dive seasons, these individuals had the times of their diving lives, working long hours in the ice cold North Atlantic waters, excavating alongside Parks Canada archaeologists to uncover this significant part of their history (for a total of over two thousands hours of diving). The wreck, which turned out to be the Elizabeth and Mary, is now a National Historic Site of Canada and a Provincial historic site as well. It is the most significant shipwreck find of the last twenty years in our country. These sport divers, former looters for most of them, have now become cultural protectors, literally historic shipwreck wardens: they now feel that they have a mission to protect this heritage for their successors, their future generations.

But let me end this letter with one particularly poignant point. Only one artefact among the thousands found on this site proved to be the smoking gun leading to the identification of the ship and of its relationship to the thirty-two ship fleet Phips had led to Québec. A simple, well recorded pewter porringer found on the upper layer of the wreck site was inscribed with the initials of its owner and of his wife: "M.I.S.", standing for one sergeant Increase Moseley and Sarah. Further research in the Boston archives revealed that this militiaman was part of the Dorchester regiment, which had been on the lost vessel Elizabeth and Mary.

This story is a gem since it underscores that artefacts should be left in context for proper recovery by a specialist: had Marc Tremblay followed your advice "that the best protection is the retrieval of artefacts as they are discovered", this vital archaeological link to historical records could have been lost. Had he mishandled this vital clue or had he sold it very shortly afterwards, the identification of the wreck could have been lost or at the very least rendered doubtful. The wreck then would not have been named of National Historic Importance to Canada and would have been deprived of most of its significance. Such a hasty, uncontrolled retrieval by one man would have done more damage than nature had done over 304 years!
In fact, our work is like investigating the scene of a crime where the clues are only valid within a well-recorded context. The utmost care and archaeological professionalism are needed to record and study sites. An excavation characterised by flashy photographs, slick drawings, and good conservation methods does not necessarily mean that research and interpretation are being conducted to professional standards.

Impressed by your background as a professional engineer, I am encouraged to hope that some of my statements have touched a nerve. I hope that your concerns about in situ preservation, the exclusion of divers, the closing of access to the sites and others have been alleviated. As for your local situation, what can you do? Perhaps organise divers into a society and petition your state authorities for funding towards a vocational underwater archaeology training workshops, historical research, shipwreck inventories and detailed survey work. Look to the examples of many such societies in existence around the world. Finally, I wish that your concern about "protecting shipwrecks for future generations" may have found a valid and powerful ally: the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, your heritage.

Please, do not hesitate to contact me for future clarifications or exchanges of information.


Robert Grenier
President, International Scientific Committee
for the Underwater Cultural Heritage (ICUCH) ICOMOS

1600 Liverpool Court,
Ottawa, Ontario,
Canada., K1A 1G2