- Mexican underwater archaeology - INAH
- A few good men

Mexican Underwater Archaeology
National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH)

Archaeologist Pilar Luna E.
Pilar Luna is a member of ICOMOS MEXICO and a member of ICUCH

March 2003

Mexico has a rich land and underwater cultural heritage. This legacy is under the care of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), created in 1939 as an official agency in order to protect, research and conservate the national patrimony. Many of Mexico's rivers, lakes, springs, cenotes and inundates caves contain prehistoric, prehispanic and colonial remains, while in its seas one can find mainly shipwrecks dating from the sixteenth century to the present.

Mexico's submerged heritage remained mostly ignored or even looted until 1980, when INAH created its Underwater Archaeology Department. Along 23 years several projects have been undertaken; all with a multidisciplinary, interinstitutional and international approach. Other trends of Mexican underwater archaeology are: non-intrusive work; in situ preservation; special protection of natural environment; and long term preservation. Among the projects done are:

·- Cayo Nuevo Reef, Gulf of Mexico. This site was discovered in 1979 by two American sport divers. From that year to 1983, four field seasons took place. Two Spanish shipwrecks¾16th and 18th centuries¾were located, and two cannons (bronze and iron) and one anchor were recovered. The bronze cannon (1552) is the oldest one of its type ever recovered in America; it is exhibited in an INAH's museum in the city of Campeche.

·- Media Luna Spring, San Luis Potosí. In 1981 and 1982, two field seasons were made. Remains of pleistocenic fauna were recovered, as well as ceramic and lithic pieces and two prehispanic infant burials belonging to groups that used this place as an offering site between years 600 and 900 of this era. Some of these pieces are exhibited at the National Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City.

·- Eastern Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Between 1984 and 1990 a study took place in order to locate the Mayan structures along this coast that could have served as navigational aids. It was proved that many of them are signaling the exact entrance to some reefs or well danger areas for ships. Modern lighthouses are built next to some of these prehispanic structures.

·- Chitales Reef, Cancún. Quintana Roo. An archaeological-biological project in a sixteenth century shipwreck, probably Spanish. Before the archaeological work began, biologists from the National University studied and removed lived corals and replanted them at the end. The area was monitored for a year until it didn't show any trace of the archaeological work.

Current Projects

In the 1990's, Mexican underwater archaeology advanced in a quantitative and qualitative way: the first Diplomate (Master level course) was given to train new underwater archaeologists, INAH's Underwater Archaeology Department was promoted to a Vice-Directorate, and three important projects started, which last until this day.

The 1630-1631 New Spain's Fleet Research Project started in 1995 with an intense archival research in Mexico, Spain and Cuba. Its main goal is the location, research, recovery, preservation and dissemination of the remains of this fleet, as well as the historic reconstruction of the events that took place before, during and after the wreck, occurred in 1631 in the Gulf of Mexico, one year after the fleet sailed from Cadiz bound to the New World. Search areas have been determined at the Sonda de Campeche, where it is feasible to find the remains of the two flagships¾Nuestra Señora del Juncal and Santa Teresa.
Two field seasons took place in 1997 and 1998 with the participation of specialists from national and international institutions. More than 70 sites containing cultural material dating from the sixteenth century to the present were located and registered. Apparently, none of these belong to the fleet. However, they have enriched the Inventory and Diagnosis of Submerged Cultural Resources in the Gulf of Mexico, a project born in 1997, parallel to the first field season of the fleet. The findings have also allowed to detect which sites deserve a deeper study in a near future. While the research and the dissemination have continued, due to the lack of financial resources it has been impossible to make another field season.

The third project is the Underwater Archaeological Atlas for the Register, Study and Protection of Cenotes in the Peninsula of Yucatan, which started in 1999 when attending denounces made by natives and speleo-divers regarding findings of prehistoric, prehispanic and colonial material in cenotes and inundated caves in Yucatan and Quintana Roo. In four field seasons important material has been recovered, including bones of pleistocenic fauna; human remains dating from more than 10,000 years ago; and Mayan skulls, skeletons and ceramics. This material is being studied in Mexican and North American laboratories.

Obstacles and Achievements

Among the main obstacles for Mexican underwater archaeology are: lack of financial support, lack of qualified archaeologists, and the difficulties to find a proper vessel for this type of research in marine waters, due to the high costs. From 1995 to 1998, main economic support came from a Trust that was cancelled in 2002. In the last four years, financial support has been received from the National Council for Culture and Arts and INAH.

A constant threat is treasure hunters, mainly foreigners. Along these years, INAH has been able to stop them through the existing laws and regulations, where the submerged cultural heritage was specifically taken into consideration in 1974. In this sense, a permanent effort has been made in order to raise consciousness regarding the value of this patrimony and the need of protecting it against damage and commercial exploitation.

In spite of these obstacles, Mexican underwater archaeology has been able to grow. Among its most recent achievements are:

  • Development of Mexican underwater archaeology and contribution to the knowledge of national past.
  • Qualification of young archaeologists and curators, as well as students of these careers.
  • Localization and registration of more than 100 sites with cultural material.
  • Design and application of the Geographical Information System ESPADAS, considered among the most advanced ones for underwater archaeological work.
  • Design and application of new methodologies, especially to work in inundated caves.
  • International and national cooperation, including local divers and fishermen communities.
  • Recovery of 40 lead ingots, the larger collection even recovered in America.
  • Biological, sediment and physical-chemical parameter studies in the most important sites.
  • Correction of modern maps regarding some keys and reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Compilation of important archival material and the creation of a library specialized in underwater archaeology and related topics.
  • Dissemination of Mexican underwater archaeology in academic forums and in national and international mass media, including the elaboration of two videos and comparative catalogues of prehispanic and colonial artifacts, as well as a documentary made by Discovery Channel.


A few good men

by Somasiri Devendra
A graduate of the Universiry of Ceylon (class of 1955) and a formal naval officer, retiring in 1976 in the rank of Lieutenant Commander, while holding the post of Commandant, Naval Academy, Trincomalee. A naval career followed by ten years as Director of a group of companies. Retired yet again in 1986, and took up the task of introducing maritime archaeology to Sri Lanka. Have been pioneering studies/operations in maritime archaeology, promoting legislation to protect the underwater cultural heritage, traditional boat/ship building in Sri Lanka, naval history. Advisor on maritime archaeology to the State Department of Archaeology, Consultant to the “Avondster” project, conducted two cultural heritage impact surveys for two major development projects and a member of ICUCH since 1992.

The maritime archaeology programme we have begun, and are continuing with in Sri Lanka, has generated some interest that is pleasing. However, the work is far from over. It has aroused interest because:

(a) Sri Lanka is a small country
(b) It is a “developing nation”
(c) It had no tradition or expertise in maritime archaeology
(d) The programme itself is progressing quite satisfactorily.

The question that naturally follows is: how did it happen? What made it possible? Perhaps will be of interest to countries like ours to know what factors helped our efforts.

I must state, at the very beginning, that the most important factor was the “People factor”. Fortunately, there was a group of people who were in a position to influence people and events, who became interested in this new area and who were willing to go the extra mile to make it happen. I cannot stress the importance of the existence of this group, the commitment they had and the willingness they had to do everything possible to turn that belief into something real. It is necessary to recognize that archaeology – not maritime archaeology – forms the background that made our efforts possible.

Starting point

Awareness of and respect for the past is an indelible part of the consciousness of the people. Sri Lanka is a small country of 25,000 square miles; with a written history stretching back over 2,500 years; skeletal remains linked to surviving ethnic groups going back to 37,000 years; settlement sites dated to 130,000 years; over ancient 100,000 monuments under conservation; and a state Archaeological Department over 113 years old. Recognition of yet another aspect of the heritage came naturally.

The part the sea played on the country's heritage was understood by the people. The country is situated at a major locus of shipping routes in ancient times. In ancient times there had been extensive commercial and diplomatic links with countries stretching from China to Rome. Sea-borne influences of a cultural nature has reached the country for millennia and seafaring was a matter of interest.

UNESCO heritage concerns were welcomed and appreciated. UNESCO's World Heritage programme was well-known to Sri Lankans. There are eight sites of cultural significance designated as such in the country. They are cared for in the ancient spirit that that such sites were meant not only for those living but for the people of the past and the future.

Archaeology was progressing away from monuments towards the “Archaeological Heritage” and the role of the Department was changing from “caretaker” to “protagonist”. It was moving towards new areas of study, a more scientific approach, and a commitment to training, education and public participation.

Apart from archaeologists, other specialist groups involved themselves in the new international developments concerning the sea and the heritage. A Sri Lankan, chaired the 1983 Law of the Sea Conference as a consensus nominee. Sri Lanka had passed a “Maritime Zones Law” in 1976 and demarcated the limits of its waters without conflict with its neighbours. A Sri Lankan Vice President of the International Court of Justice, spoke of the “imperative of balancing the needs of the present generation with those of posterity”, quoting Sri Lankan chronicles naming the people the owners of all resources with the state only a caretaker. Within Sri Lanka, a Supreme Court judgement supporting a public interest group opposing state use of traditionally held lands for economic development held that the state and the people shared a responsibility towards the land and the heritage. The National Aquatic Resources Agency acted to distance salvors from historic ships and began the process of drafting new legislation to protect them. ICOMOS International elected a Sri Lankan to head it and under his leadership Maritime Archaeology became the subject of a scientific committee which is now known as ICUCH. Sri Lanka has been active on this Committee since.

As an island nation, very cosmopolitan in outlook, Sri Lanka had no qualms about asking for and receiving infusions of foreign expertise. Although it had remained 350 years under successful colonial powers, it was free from complexes and even claimed a colonial fortress as a World Heritage site of “dual parentage”.

The rocky road

It was this background that helped the group of enthusiasts to embark upon a programme of underwater cultural heritage management. Let me know trace the steps taken and the principles adhered to, which has made the programme successful.

  • The accidental discovery of a “silver wreck” in 1962 by Arthur C. Clarke sparked interest in shipwrecks which encouraged treasure hunting but opened the eyes of Archaeologists. ·
  • Sri Lanka began to exploit “sun, sea and sand” tourism, unfortunately making wreck diving popular. ·
  • The subsequent interest shown by salvors prompted the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) to turn its attention to maritime archaeology. ·
  • NARA set up an “Inter-ministerial committee on shipwrecks” to forge a multi-faceted response to the problem and a Legal sub committee to draft new legislation. ·
  • A first underwater investigation was undertaken by a group of enthusiasts. Undertaken in a climate of civil strife it was, nonetheless, moderately successful ·
  • At the Archaeological Department's Centenary Conference, a Resolution was adopted for the Department to undertake maritime archaeology. ·
  • ICOMOS International started a scientific committee on the underwater cultural heritage which became the ICUCH. A Sri Lankan was President of ICOMOS International then. ·
  • A joint Sri Lanka – Australian project was commenced, in 1992 with the objective of training a core group of Sri Lankan trainee archaeologists from a University. As a secondary objective, a data-base of shipwrecks in the historic port of Galle was undertaken. Co-ordination was by enthusiasts. Divers and Conservators were trained, a comprehensive report was published and work continued. ·
  • Moves by treasure hunters to obtain legitimacy on a profit-sharing basis were rejected as being against archaeological policy. ·
  • In 1995, the Cabinet of Ministers commissioned the group to undertake a rescue archaeology project, prior to the construction of a new commercial port. A comprehensive survey of Galle Bay was undertaken and a comprehensive report was published. That year the ICOMOS Code was drafted and accepted, and now forms part of the Convention. ·
  • While the construction of a port was delayed, work continued and the construction of a Conservation Laboratory was taken in hand. ·
  • In 1998 the Department of Archaeology expanded its powers to cover the territorial waters. Cultural heritage impact surveys were required before development works were undertaken and the development agencies to provide funds for surveying and recovering artifacts from sites likely to be destroyed. ·
  • In 2000, discussions began for a further 3-year programme of training and exploration with the Amsterdam Historical Museum under license from the Archaeological Department. ·
  • In 2001, November, the “Avondster” Project began, and UNESCO adopted the Convention. A Licensing system conforming to the Convention requirements was adopted.

The correct tools

The factors that helped Sri Lankan programme, along the rocky road, were the following:
  • The belief in the essential rightness of the concept of conserving the underwater cultural heritage.
  • The commitment to archaeological principles and UNESCO/ICOMOS guidelines.
  • The emphasis on training a group of local archaeologists as the first requirement for a national programme.
  • The establishment of an administrative and scientific infra-structure to service the excavations.
  • The willingness to join hands with foreign experts and institutions for joint projects.
  • The insistence that all archaeological work be undertaken under Archaeological Department license and control.
  • The principled and definite stand taken against treasure hunting and salvage.
  • The willingness to absorb volunteers and enthusiasts into the programme.
  • The wide publicity given to the work through the media and museums, making the public stakeholders in the programme.

Dangers ahead

Although our progress is something that we, who were part of the story, are happy about we are only too aware of the dangers that surround us. These are, alas! common to all countries like ours. One is that Success breeds Envy. It is often cloaked in many guises – professional, academic and other seemingly innocent guises – but Envy it always remains. Another is misunderstanding, misconception and plain ignorance. This can become a major problem when it affects persons in positions of power. This paper began with a bow to the enlightened individuals in positions of influence who paved the way for us. Such people are not often begotten, but all too often they fade away. My concluding words of advice are, therefore, about such people: Find them, Care for them, and Keep them. Without them, nothing will be achieved.