The sea covers four-fifths of the surface of the earth and has been the setting of human history since its very beginning. Underwater cultural heritage is therefore of enormous cultural significance and of great variety.
Over the centuries, entire cities and even landscapes have been swallowed by the waves and thousands of ships have perished at sea. Their remains constitute a precious archaeological heritage. In recent years, this heritage has attracted increasing attention from the scientific community and the general public.
Underwater cultural heritage needs to be protected in the same way as land heritage, since it is a source of much historical information. However, it also features characteristics that make it unique.
Many submerged traces of human existence are much better preserved than those from land based sites. They can give us a glimpse of important historic events from our recent past, but also of the development of human civilization much further back in time than described in any human writings.
The variety of underwater cultural heritage:
The importance of underwater cultural heritage:
Testimony of historic events: Many sites, bearing testimony to important historic events, battles, the slave trade, natural disasters, and revolutions, are to be found on the bottom of oceans, rivers and lakes. The sites of the battles of Salamis, Trafalgar, Lepanto, and Abukir and of the earthquakes that submerged Port Royal, Jamaica, and parts of Alexandria, Egypt, are just some examples. The remains of Herakleion, Baiheliang, as well as countless Stone Age settlements in the Baltic and the Black Sea are testimony to the rising waters that swallowed them.
Often better State of Preservation: Many submerged archaeological sites have remained untouched over centuries or even millennia and biological material is often much better preserved than on land, due to the lack of oxygen, which would have facilitated its deterioration. This makes these sites unique.
Importance for cultural dialogue and national identity: Underwater cultural heritage can reveal aspects of history that are not yet known or that have not been accounted for in written records. For instance, the ancient trade between China and Africa, Indonesia and Australia, as well as the sophistication of ancient indigenous people can now be proven due to artefacts discovered on the seabed or in submerged caves. Since water has been used since the beginning of civilization as a way to connect different worlds, the remains to be found on seabeds are testimony to cultural dialogue from the beginning of humankind.
Economic importance: Diving tourism and maritime museums can be a significant economical attraction for an area or a city. It is not only their entrance fees that can be quite substantial, even more important is the economic impact they have on the cultural tourism industry and local tourist accomodation.
Global warming and underwater cultural heritage: Rising sea levels due to climate change and the degradation of the ecosystem due to human activity may in the future increasingly affect cultural heritage sites. The augmentation in soil moisture after flooding may also lead to the instability and shifting of underground monuments and archaeological sites. Among cultural sites at risk are, for instance: Hawaii and Kilwa in Tanzania, Herschel Island in Canada and the remains of the explorer Scott’s shelter in the Antarctic. Research concerning underwater cultural heritage, which was once located on land, may prove to be a valuable source of information about the impact of water on sites and earlier changes in continental structures.