UNESCO urges the Americas to join the underwater heritage conventionParis - The remains of more than three million ships and their cargoes are thought to lie beneath the world's oceans.
Historical monuments such as the lighthouse in Alexandria (Egypt) and whole towns such as Port Royal (Jamaica) also lie at the bottom ofthe oceans. These underwater treasures attract professional looters who use increasingly advanced technology to systematically pillage them.
To preserve this underwater cultural heritage and to curb the looting of wrecks for commercial ends, UNESCO's Culture Sector and its Caribbean office are organizing a meeting in Kingston (Jamaica) from June 17 to 20, to urge states in the region to ratify the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
The Convention, adopted on November 2 last year, aims to protect "all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character, which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years." However, as UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture Mounir Bouchenaki points out, "the adoption of the Convention is not enough. We need 20 Member States to ratify it before it can come into force."
The meeting in Kingston will bring together about 150 delegates and experts from some 50 countries, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean, regions whose history has left them with an exceptionally rich underwater heritage. The archaeological work done over ten years at the sunken Port Royal site, for example, has given scientistsa unique opportunity to study 17th century urban organization, architecture and the daily life that existed before an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the town in 1692.
In Bermuda, whose underwater treasures have recently drawn not just archaeologistsbut professional salvage companies that recover treasure to sell, laws are being passed to put a stop to underwater looting.
In the Bay of Montevideo (Uruguay) lie the wrecks of more than 200 large ships that went down between 1772 and 1930. They include frigates, brigs, corvettes, steamships and other vessels that plied the waters between the Rio de la Plata estuary and North America or carried passengers between Uruguay and Argentina. For all these reasons, says Bouchenaki, "I am positive that UNESCO Member States from this region will be some of the first (to ratify the Convention)."
Although the new Convention emphasizes in situ preservation of all underwater heritage, and prefers careful exploration to raising items, it also deals with their protection if they are brought up. Signatory states promise to curb the activity of treasure-hunters and punish all infringements of the rules, and the Convention says they shall "take measures to prevent the entry into their territory, the dealing in, or the possession of underwater cultural heritage illicitly exported and/or recovered."
Two other clauses of the Convention urge States parties to encourage "responsible non-intrusive access" by the public to sites that contain underwater heritage and mention the need to make people aware of its importance and significance. The Kingston meeting will discuss the possibilities of training experts in underwater excavation with the goal of establishing a pool of underwater archaeologists wherever possible.
SOME FACTS AND FIGURES
· Over three million undiscovered shipwrecks are estimated to be spread across ocean floors ;
· 65,000 are thought to have sunk since 1500 off North American coasts ;
· Experts calculate that 850 ships - including 90 Spanish galleons and 40 Portuguese Indiamen - lie in the waters around the Azores ;
· The Dictionary of Disasters at Sea lists 12,542 sailing and war vessels lost at sea between 1824 and 1962 ;
· Whole cites have disappeared under the waves, such as Jamaica's Port Royal, victim of earthquake in 1692 ;
· Remnants of ancient civilisations now under water include the Alexandria lighthouse in Egypt and numerous Neolithic villages under the Black Sea;
A CONFLICT OF SCIENTIFIC AND COMMERCIAL INTERESTS
· The scientific excavation of a 16th century Basque Spanish galleon in the waters around Labrador in Canada resulted in 14,000 diving hours and enough information to fill a 4,000-page report;
· Sweden's Wasa shipwreck attracts 750,000 visitors per year, contributing some $300 per tourist per day to the national economy;
· The Western Australian Maritime Museum welcomes 250,000 visitors a year;
Careful archaeological excavations of the Pandora, wrecked off the coast of Australia in 1791, have greatlycontributed to understanding the mutiny on the Bounty and the tracking of its mutineers ;
· Exhaustive archaeological research spanning ten years and covering eight submerged buildings at Jamaica's Port Royal afforded scientists unprecedented opportunities to study 17th century urbanism, architecture, diet, technology and daily life ;
· In 1985, an American treasure hunter discovered a cargo worth an estimated $ 400 million in the 1622 wreck of a Spanish galleon off the Florida Keys;
· At least six international treasure-hunting companies have set up operations in Portugal to exploit the immensely rich underwater heritage found off its coasts;
· Treasure hunters regularly recruit local fishermen in the Philippines to comb the ocean floor for traces of wrecked Spanish galleons;
· As early as 1974, studies showed that all known wrecks off the Turkish coast had already been pilfered;
· A 1986 Christie's auction of salvaged porcelain and gold from a 1752 Dutch shipwreck in the South China Sea brought in $16 million;
· Cargo recovered from a wreck off the southern coast of Viet Nam was auctioned for close to $7.2 million in 1992;
· Thanks to important underwater excavations, the local population of Bodrum has tripled, confirming its status as one of the most popular tourist sites in Turkey;
· Over four million people have visited Great Britain's Mary Rose shipwreck in Portsmouth;
· The Mary Rose archaeologists dove 28,000 times between 1979 and 1982, at a cost of 2.8 million dollars;
· The raising of the 580-ton Mary Rose from the ocean floor on 11 October 1982 was broadcast live to some 60 million television viewers;
· In 1999, treasure salvors in the South China Sea located a junk so large that it was nicknamed " the Chinese Titanic" with its yield of over 300,000 pieces of porcelain - spurring a call for investors with the promise of large profits.
Contacts: Lucia Iglesias Kuntz,
Bureau of Public Information,
Tel: (+33) (0) 1 45 68 47 28
Or in Kingston: Olatz Landa
Tel: ((+)1 (809) 929 70879